- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Veterans seeking care for the first time waited an average of 60 days in Little Rock VA hospital and 52 days in Fayetteville, about average among the 731 VA hospitals and clinics examined in an audit released Monday by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Patients who were already receiving care had much shorter wait times, just four days in Little Rock and 2.5 days in Fayetteville.

The audit was released in response to criticism nationally that tens of thousands of veterans have had to wait up to three months to see a doctor.

The agency has a goal of seeing new patients within 14 days, though patients with emergencies are seen immediately. The audit found 92 patients waited 90 days or more for their first primary care appointment at Fayetteville, while none waited more than 90 days at the Little Rock facility.

Overall, the Little Rock VA got 97 percent of 62,603 patients to see a doctor within 30 days. That left about 2,000 patients waiting longer than a month. New patients who needed to see specialists waited an average of 41 days and new patients seeking mental health care waited 39 days.

At the Fayetteville VA, the average wait for a new patient to be seen was 52 days, while established patients had an average wait of 2.5 days. Overall, 96 percent of 42,226 Fayetteville patients got to see a doctor within 30 days, with 1,492 needing longer than 30 days.

New patients at Fayetteville had an average wait of 43 days to see a specialist and 35 days for mental health treatment.

Members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation have been critical of the agency since reports surfaced that wait times were covered up in some instances, though there is no indication of similar impropriety in Arkansas.

The Inspector General’s findings “are unacceptable and provide more evidence that the Obama administration has ignored the systemic problems at the VA for the last 5 years,” U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in an emailed statement. “While Arkansas performed better than other states, better should not be the standard-bearer for Arkansas’ veterans.”

Cotton is running against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who has met with state VA officials and veterans and said he is exploring how widespread the problems are within the agency.

“I won’t back down until I know this problem is solved. Our veterans deserve nothing less,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., who is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, said the VA needs to make changes quickly, including providing vouchers if necessary so veterans can get care quickly.