- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 10, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Officials with the Veterans Affairs health care system in New Mexico said Tuesday they have identified at least 21 people who died while waiting to see a doctor amid an investigation into lapses in care.

VA administrators have not determined whether any of the deaths were related to a lack of care or delays in seeing a doctor.

“What we are doing is looking at every single one of those cases in detail to make sure the wait for care was or was not related to their death,” said Dr. Meghan Gerety, chief of the health care system’s integrated care service. “At this point, we’re still in the review process. It takes a while.”

The VA learned of the patients’ deaths while reaching out to more than 1,000 veterans who were on waiting lists to see primary care doctors or receive specialty care. Calls are being made to each person on the waiting lists. Letters are being sent to some in an effort to see if they still want appointments, if their conditions have worsened or if they want to seek care outside the VA system.

A wide-ranging national audit released Monday showed more than 1,000 veterans as of mid-May had been waiting three months or more for initial medical appointments within the New Mexico system.

The audit also found new patients seeking primary care in New Mexico were waiting an average of 46 days, while those needing specialty care waited nearly two months. New patients seeking mental health care waited an average of 38 days.

Officials also acknowledged close to 3,000 patients were assigned to a doctor who didn’t actually see them and was available only by phone because of a lack of primary care physicians within the system.

Gerety and James Robbins, interim director of the New Mexico VA system, said Tuesday during a news conference that significant progress has been made in reducing wait times in some areas, but others still need improvement. They said the effort to improve patient access in New Mexico started long before the uproar that began with reports of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center.

Gerety said efforts in New Mexico are starting to pay off with virtually no wait for those patients seeking visits with a primary care doctor.

The New Mexico system is also holding open clinics on the weekends to reach more veterans and is considering establishing a hotline for veterans who are seeking health care. VA staffers who schedule appointments also are getting more training with a focus on accuracy, and two new teams of medical professionals are being hired to see veterans sooner.

Still, questions about the scheduling process have raised red flags in New Mexico and elsewhere, prompting further review of operations at more than 100 VA facilities and clinics around the country.

Robbins said further review and any independent audits are welcome and will help administrators pinpoint where improvements need to be made.

Pointing to the recent internal audit, Robbins said: “I don’t think we would call this data up and try to say we have no issues with wait times. This data combined with all the other information we’re getting clearly tells us we have an issue with wait times.”



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