- Associated Press - Thursday, June 12, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The director of the Veterans Administration health services in central Alabama said Thursday he has eliminated paper waiting lists, has added staff and has worked to bring stability to an operation that has some of the longest patient waiting lists in the country.

James Talton talked about the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System after a VA report Monday showed the Alabama center had an average wait time for new patients of 75 days. That was the seventh-worst nationally. The average wait time for first-time mental health patients was sixth-worst at 57 days. Other VA facilities in Alabama had shorter wait times.

“The number is too high,” Talton said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The central Alabama VA has its main medical facilities in Montgomery and Tuskegee and outpatient clinics in Columbus, Georgia, as well as Monroeville, Fort Rucker and Dothan in Alabama. It serves nearly 45,000 veterans, and a growing number of served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Talton, a 53-year-old Army veteran, became director in July 2012, after being associate director at the VA in Tuscaloosa. He said he was aware the central Alabama VA had a record of instability and double-digit turnover in staff, and the director’s job was generally considered a career ender. “I was advised by 14 or 15 people not to take this job,” he said.

But Talton said he thought veterans deserved better.

After arriving in Montgomery, Talton said he got a report about veterans seeking appointments being put on paper waiting lists rather than being entered into the electronic record keeping system. That was against VA rules, and the days spent on the paper lists didn’t count as days waiting for an appointment, he said.

But he said, “The lists weren’t secret. People knew about them.” And everyone on the lists eventually got appointments, he said.

Talton launched an investigation that focused on three people. Two retired and one still works for the VA while the investigation is continuing, he said.

A congresswoman from Montgomery has accused Talton of misleading her and committing a breach of trust because he told her in a meeting June 6 that the three employees had been “relieved of their duties.” Rep. Martha Roby told news media that three employees had been fired, and then she found out they hadn’t.

On Wednesday, Roby said, “If a member of Congress can’t get a straight answer from the VA, just think what our veterans go through on a daily basis.”

Talton said that when he met with Roby last week, he was using a common phrase in the human resources business, and he takes responsibility for the misunderstanding.

“That term has different connotations to different people,” he said.

Talton said the long waits for central Alabama veterans are due, in part, to difficulties in recruiting physicians. He said Alabama has a shortage of physicians and attracting them is made harder by the VA’s salary ceiling.

“Physicians are getting better offers in the private sector,” he said.

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