Valdosta Daily Times

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June 10, 2014

Audit details long waits at Ga. VA sites

ATLANTA — The average wait time for new patients at the Atlanta VA Medical Center was about 64 days for a primary care doctor, almost 53 days for a specialist and nearly 27 days for a mental health professional, according to a national audit released Monday.

In the audit, the Veterans Affairs Department reported more than 57,000 veterans nationally have been waiting for up to three months for medical appointments. That included 187 Georgia veterans who have requested appointments at VA medical centers in Atlanta, Augusta and Dublin and an additional 7,600 in Georgia who enrolled in the VA system but never saw a doctor.

Wait times at the three Georgia medical centers were not the longest in the country, but were considerable and well beyond a 14-day agency goal. The audit said that target was “not attainable” given growing demand and poor planning. It offers the broadest look yet at the largest integrated health care system in the country that serves nearly 9 million veterans and their families.

The controversy over wait times forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign last month amid calls from a wide range of Republicans and Democrats.

In Georgia, all three VA medical centers have been flagged for further review.

“The Atlanta VA Medical Center’s top priority is to deliver high-quality care that our veterans have earned and deserve,” said spokesman Gregory Kendall.  “The current wait time for new patients is unacceptable and we are taking several actions to improve access.”

Those steps include hiring new staff as needed, offering Saturday clinics for primary care and traumatic brain injury patients, as well as building a new outpatient clinic in Decatur and expanding space for primary care and mental health services at the main campus, according to Kendall. He added officials are awaiting congressional approval for a new outpatient clinic in Cobb County and are seeking approval for three additional locations in Newton, Pike and Pickens counties.

At the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, the average wait time for new patients was about 57 days for a primary care doctor, nearly 46 days for a specialist and almost 48 days for a mental health professional. The average wait time for new patients at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta was 29 days for a primary care doctor, about 56 days for a specialist and roughly 45 days for a mental health professional.

In comparison, a new VA patient in Honolulu, Hawaii, had an average wait time of 145 days to see a primary care physician.

Wait times, however, dropped substantially at each facility for established patients. The longest was about five days at the VA center in Dublin for a specialist, while the shortest wait time was less than a day for an established patient to see a mental health professional at the Augusta facility.

Dr. Frank G. Jordan Jr., spokesman for the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center, said the facility in Dublin has taken steps to improve access for appointments, establishing a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week call center and hiring additional clinical staff. An official with the VA medical center in Augusta did not immediately provide a response to the audit.

Both the Atlanta and Augusta facilities have faced congressional scrutiny for delays or mismanagement linked to at least seven patient deaths.

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