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New patients wait 56 days in Los Angeles

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POSTED June 9, 2014 8:04 p.m.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Patients seeking care through the VA’s Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System waited an average of 56 days for their first appointment with a primary care doctor — four times longer than the department’s goal.

A report released Monday by the Department of Veterans Affairs said the average wait time for new patients at other VA hospitals in California ranged from about 25 days in Fresno to about 44 days in Loma Linda.

VA guidelines say veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. The department now says that meeting that target was unattainable given existing resources and the growing demand for services.

The findings are part of a national audit ordered after a whistleblower said veterans were dying while waiting for care in Phoenix. In all, more than 700 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics were reviewed. The review also found that 7,086 veterans in California had requested an appointment during the enrollment process during the past 10 years but an appointment was not scheduled.

The audits indicate that accessing care is difficult for newcomers, but that established patients within the VA generally had little trouble getting in to see a doctor in a timely manner.

“It gets easier, especially when they know what your problems are,” said Dane Stageberg, 56, who served in the Army and has used the VA in Los Angeles for the last four years. He said he waited “a good four months” to get in, but he said part of the difficulty was scheduling appointments while living in a halfway house. He now visits the VA West Lost Angeles Medical Center about once per month to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes and his general health.

Kelvin Neilson, 71, of Ventura, who also served in the Army, said that scheduling an appointment with the VA can be complicated. He said Monday he was scheduled for a biopsy at one clinic in west Los Angeles, a separate stress test at the VA’s main campus in West Los Angeles, and a blood pressure consultation with a doctor in Oxnard, more than an hour’s drive away in Ventura County. He wasn’t sure whether he could make all three. And dealing with the VA’s phone system added to his aggravation.

“The phone system is atrocious. You get all these extensions,” Neilson said.

Established patients served by the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System got an appointment with a primary care doctor an average of four days after their desired date. The Los Angeles system is the VA’s largest and most complex.

Established patients served by the San Francisco and Fresno VA hospitals, on average, were able to get an appointment for primary care within one day of their desired date.

A similar trend occurred with access to specialty services and mental health care. New patients at times had difficulty accessing the system, but established patients were able to get appointments much more quickly. For example, new patients seeking mental health care through the Los Angeles VA waited an average of about 39 days, but for existing patients, it was about a two-day wait beyond the veteran’s preferred date.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the audit is “a wake-up call.”

“The wait times for new patients within the Greater Los Angeles Health Care System — and the VA as a whole — are absolutely unacceptable,” Brownley said.

The controversy around patient wait times at the VA prompted Eric Shinseki to resign as the department’s secretary on May 30. Shinseki took the blame for what he decried as a “lack of integrity” through the network. The audit report released Monday said 13 percent of VA schedulers reported supervisors telling them to falsify appointment dates to make waiting times appear shorter.

 

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