VA says more than 57,000 patients are waiting for first visit

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)Washington Post – by Josh Hicks

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday that more than 57,000 former troops have waited at least 90 days for their first VA medical appointments and another 64,000 who enrolled in the department’s health system during the past decade have never visited a doctor in the network.

Additionally, about 13 percent of VA schedulers have said they were told to falsify appointment-request dates to give the impression that wait times were shorter than they really were, according to the department.  

The information comes from the agency’s internal audit of 731 VA medical centers, which the VA released Monday.

The report said that complicated scheduling practices created confusion among clerks and supervisors, contributing to the problems. It also said the VA’s goal of providing an initial appointment within 14 days of a request was unattainable because of the growing demand for care among veterans.

The report came less than two weeks after the VA inspector general’s office confirmed recent allegations that VA hospitals have falsified appointment records to hide treatment delays. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned over the scandal on May 30.

Monday’s VA findings shed light on the depth of the scheduling issue and substantiate claims that rank-and-file employees were directed to manipulate records.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a statement on Monday that the problems “demand immediate action.” He added that veterans deserve to have “full faith in their VA.”

The VA outlined 16 actions it has or will take to address the problems, including ending the 14-day goal, contacting patients to get them off wait lists, taking personnel actions against employees and officials who are responsible for records manipulation, halting new hires at the Veterans Health Administration headquarters in Washington, D.C. and publishing data on wait times twice per month.

Veterans groups said the report underscores the need for serious changes within the VA healthcare system.

“This audit is absolutely infuriating, and underscores the depth of this scandal,” Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement. He added that President Obama needs to be “out-front in reforming the VA.”

American Legion executive director Peter Gaytan said the number show that the VA has “a huge task in front of it.” He added that the Legion is already working with veterans to make sure they understand options and to help them obtain appointments as soon as possible.

Last week, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reached agreement on the terms of a bill to help address some of the underlying problems that led to the treatment delays.

The proposal would allow veterans who experience long wait times to seek care at non-VA medical centers, in addition to providing about $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses and authorizing the VA to lease 26 medical facilities in 18 states.

Last week, Gibson promised cultural change for the Veterans Health Administration, saying the agency would restore trust in the network “one veteran at a time.”

“I will not be part of some effort to maintain the status quo here,” Gibson said.

He also outlined steps the VA has taken to address its scheduling problems in Phoenix, where some of the initial allegations occurred.

Gibson said the department contacted all veterans who were on unofficial wait lists to help them set up timely appointments, began work to contract with private medical centers, deployed mobile medical units to help with the workload, and removed three senior officials at the Phoenix VA clinic.

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