The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said on Monday that roughly 100,000 veterans have experienced long waits for healthcare appointments at VA facilities and more than three-quarters of locations had misreported waiting times.
In an internal audit, the agency said 57,436 new veteran patients had been waiting 90 days or more for an appointment. The agency said it was abandoning a two-week scheduling goal after finding that it was "not attainable."
"This data shows the extent of the systemic problems we face, problems that demand immediate actions," Sloan Gibson, acting Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, said Monday in a statement. "As of today, VA has contacted 50,000 veterans across the country to get them off of wait lists and into clinics."
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The audit examined 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics and found long wait times across the country for patients seeking their first appointments with both primary care doctors and specialists.
A 14-day target for waiting times was "not attainable," the auditors reported, because of growing demand for VA services and poor planning. The 2011 decision by senior VA officials setting that target, and then basing bonuses on meeting the target, was "an organizational leadership failure."
The audit found that in some instances schedulers were instructed to enter different desired dates than the one requested by the veteran, thus masking waiting times.
A separate inspector general's report this week found deep-seated problems in the veterans' sprawling healthcare system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.
"This report makes it clear that the only people benefiting from our current VA healthcare system are the bureaucrats who put their own bonuses over veterans' care," said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in a statement. "Now that we have further confirmation of the systemic nature of these problems, President Obama must direct the FBI to investigate the allegations of criminal misconduct."
Medical care for the nation's 22.1 million veterans has become a top priority for Congress amid reports that the Veterans Health Administration, the country's largest integrated health system, hid excessive waits for veterans trying to see a doctor. Half of the 1.9 million troops discharged after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan have come back to the United States in need of medical care, VA data show.
At least 18 veterans died while awaiting medical care in Phoenix, Gibson has said. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, has said there were as many as 40 deaths.
Miller and other lawmakers have blamed VA performance goals for motivating hospital staff to falsify official waiting lists.
The audit is the third in a series of reports in the past month into long wait times and falsified records at VA facilities nationwide. The controversy forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30. Shinseki took the blame for what he decried as a "lack of integrity" in the sprawling system providing healthcare to the nation's military veterans.
The audit, released Monday, said 13 percent of VA schedulers reported getting instructions from supervisors or others to falsify appointment dates in order to meet on-time performance goals. About 8 percent of schedulers said they used alternatives to an official electronic waiting list, often under pressure to make waiting times appear more favorable.
Here is a list of the facilities with the longest average waits as of May 15 for new patients seeking primary care, specialist care and mental healthcare, according to audit results released Monday.
New Patient Primary Care Longest Average Wait Time:
- Honolulu, Hawaii, 145 days;
- VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend HCS, Harlingen, Texas, 85 days;
- Fayetteville, N.C., 83 days;
- Baltimore HCS, Md., 81 days;
- Portland, Ore., 80 days;
- Columbia, S.C., 77 days;
- Central Alabama Veterans HCS, Montgomery, Ala., 75 days;
- Providence, R.I., 74 days;
- Salt Lake City, Utah, 73 days;
- Richmond, Va., 73 days.
New Patient Specialist Care Average Wait Time:
- VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend HCS, Harlingen, Texas, 145 days;
- El Paso, Texas, 90 days;
- White City, Ore., 88 days;
- Clarksburg, W.Va., 86 days;
- St. Louis, Mo., 86 days;
- Middle Tennessee HCS, Nashville, Tenn, 71 days;
- Durham, N.C., 69 days;
- Hampton, Va., 68 days;
- Mountain Home, Tenn., 67 days;
- VA Central Western Massachusetts HCS, Leeds, Mass., 67 days.
New Patient Mental Healthcare Average Wait Time:
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- Durham, N.C., 104 days;
- Clarksburg, W.Va., 96 days;
- Amarillo, Texas, 61 days;
- El Paso, Texas, 60 days;
- Erie, Pa., 57 days;
- Central Alabama Veterans HCS, Montgomery, Ala., 57 days;
- White City, Ore., 57 days;
- VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend HCS, Harlingen, Texas, 55 days;
- Hampton, Va., 54 days;
- Dallas, Texas, 50 days.
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