By Grant Schulte - Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nearly 1,000 veterans who requested an initial appointment in Iowa or Nebraska Veterans Affairs facilities over the last decade were not able to be seen, according to a national audit released Monday.
The VA audit - based on a snapshot of agency data from May 15 - showed 987 enrolled veterans had sought appointments at one of three facilities - two in Iowa, and one in Nebraska that serves western Iowa.
The VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System had 606 appointment requests during the last decade that had not been scheduled. The VA Central Iowa Health Care System had 274 requests, and the Iowa City VA Health Care System had 107.
The number represents veterans who indicated on paper or online that they wanted an appointment when they enrolled in VA services, said regional VA spokeswoman Sharyl Schaepe. Schaepe said VA officials were working to learn if the people who sought appointments need treatment sooner, and if they’re willing to travel to another facility that can accommodate them. Patients are sometimes placed on official waiting lists because of a lack of clinic space and providers, she said.
The three facilities are looking at group appointments and telemedicine technology to reach out to more veterans quickly, Schaepe said. Some outpatient clinics have also expanded their hours to include nights and weekends. Schaepe said the national VA office plans to release updated numbers from each facility every two weeks to ensure they’re making progress.
“We expect our numbers to improve as we continue to accelerate this care,’’ she said.
The report shows that 317 new patients in the three facilities were placed on official VA waiting lists for initial appointments. New patients are placed on waiting lists when an appointment can’t be scheduled within 90 days, although they sometimes can get in sooner because of cancellations. VA officials say the waiting list numbers fluctuate daily.
Schaepe said each VA office is reaching out to veterans who have been on the official waiting list for more than 30 days to see if they need an appointment sooner.
“If they need more urgent care, we’re trying to find space within the clinics,’’ she said.
Of the three facilities, the Iowa City VA Health Care System had the longest average wait times for primary care, at roughly 43 days. Average wait times were 39 days for the VA Central Iowa Health Care System and 30 days for the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.
The VA did not report any evidence that waiting lists were manipulated in Iowa or Nebraska, as was found in other parts of the country. The VA began a system-wide investigation on the heels of reports that some patients were dying while waiting for appointments, and that wait times were being covered up at a VA in Phoenix.
A preliminary audit 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 with nearly 9 million veterans and their families as patients. The scandal led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
“It’s a relief that the agency hasn’t found any waiting list manipulation in Iowa,’’ U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in a statement. “Still, the national picture is grim. Too much waiting list manipulation has occurred, and far too many veterans aren’t getting the timely care they need.’’