CHART: VA backlog: 67 days is the average wait time for a new patient to see a Leeds VA specialist

Last modified: Tuesday, June 10, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The director of the VA Medical Center in Leeds and its five clinics is pledging aggressive measures to reduce veterans’ long waits for medical appointments after the regional facility’s poor showing in a national audit of VA wait times.

“I was not expecting us to be as bad as we showed up in terms of some of the data,” said Roger Johnson, director of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, terming the results “unacceptable.”

“I think we are more significantly challenged than I had initially thought. But it’s an opportunity to improve, and we’re going to improve.”

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The Veterans Affairs Department says an audit of 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics released Monday found the agency’s complicated appointment process created confusion among scheduling clerks and supervisors.

While Massachusetts fared better than many states, the VA’s Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System had one of the top 10 longest wait times at 67 days for new patients trying to see a specialist.

Overall, the average wait time in the Central Western system for new primary care patients was 72 days, compared to 59 days at the Boston location and 12 days at the Bedford facility.

Local VA officials are taking a hard look at those figures, which don’t appear to reflect the patient feedback surveys the health care system receives, among other benchmarks, said Amy J. Gaskill, a spokeswoman for the local VA healthcare system.

“We’re addressing it as quickly as we possible can,” said Gaskill of the veterans still waiting beyond 30 days for medical appointments.

The Central Western system says it provides primary, specialty, and mental health care — including psychiatric, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder services — to a veteran population of more than 120,000 in central and western Massachusetts.

On the whole, Massachusetts fared well in the audit. The VA says fewer than 600 patients in Massachusetts are waiting for initial medical appointments at VA hospitals and clinics 90 days or more after requesting them. That’s compared to more than 57,000 patients nationwide waiting more than 90 days.

Of the 64,000 patients who enrolled in the VA health care system nationwide over the past 10 years who have never had appointments, fewer than 900 sought treatment in Massachusetts.

It’s not just a backlog problem, the wide-ranging review indicated. Thirteen percent of schedulers in the facility-by-facility report on hospitals and outpatient clinics reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment schedules to make patient waits appear shorter.

The latest audit comes a little more than a week after the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System reported that 91.4 percent of its patients are seen within 14 days of their requested date of medical appointments in primary care across its system. At the time, the local VA healthcare acknowledged that it was redoubling its efforts to reach what Johnson described as a “small group” of veterans who, for a variety of reasons, are 30 days or more out from their desired appointment times, which is an issue the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to address nationally. Johnson said he could not provide the specific number of veterans who fall into that category on Monday.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs VA access audit and wait-time fact sheet VISN 1 June 9, 2014

“The data suggests that for a small number of veterans, we have not been getting them in in a timely manner, and we are pushing very hard to get them in,” Johnson said. “It’s small number. but we’re not meeting the needs for that small number.”

Johnson said staff turnover is one factor contributing to the delays, including the loss of two primary care physicians at VA clinics. One of the health care system’s two podiatrists also has been on extended leave, contributing to longer patient wait times, Gaskill noted.

“We’ve been challenged in terms of our small size,” Johnson said.

The audit is the first nationwide look at the VA network in the uproar that began with reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center. A preliminary review last month found that long patient waits and falsified records were “systemic” throughout the VA medical network, the nation’s largest single health care provider, serving nearly 9 million veterans. The controversy forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.