- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - The average wait times for new patients seeking mental health care or specialist care at the VA Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia, are among the highest in the nation, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs audit released Monday.

The average wait for mental health care at the Clarksburg VA is 96 days, second only to Durham, N.C. The average wait for specialist care at Clarksburg is 86 days, fourth highest in the nation.

And the average wait time for a new patient seeking a primary care appointment was 54 days - nearly four times what the VA had set as a goal. VA guidelines, since abandoned, had said veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. The department has since said that meeting that target was unattainable given existing resources and growing demand. Monday’s audit by the VA called the 2011 decision by senior VA officials to set it, and then basing bonuses on meeting the target, an “organizational leadership failure.”

Other VA facilities in West Virginia also are exceeding that goal. Martinsburg’s wait time is 47 days; Beckley’s is 39 days; Huntington’s is just under 29 days.

In a telephone interview Monday, Clarksburg VA Medical Center director Beth Brown said that her staff is “drilling down” to see what the problems are.

“We have capability within mental health, but recruitment of mental health providers has been a challenge, and it is even more of challenge oftentimes in rural settings,” she said. “And West Virginia is a rural environment.”

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., sent Brown a scathing letter Monday about the backlogs.

“It is impossible that you and your senior staff did not know the extent to which your facility is failing to care for our veterans,” wrote Capito, who is running for Senate. “Placing second and fourth on lists of poorest-performing VA hospitals in these categories is unacceptable, infuriating and intolerable. It is unconscionable that new patients unfamiliar with the VA system are forced to wait this long for care.”

In a statement, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said, “We have a responsibility to our veterans to make sure they receive quality health care and I am committed to working with all my colleagues to uphold that commitment.”

The numbers released Monday found that nationwide, more than 57,000 patients are still waiting for initial medical appointments at VA hospitals and clinics 90 days or more after requesting them. The audit includes interviews with more than 3,772 employees nationwide between May 12 and June 3.

The enormous bureaucracy at the VA has come under intense scrutiny following allegations that 40 patients died while awaiting care at a Phoenix hospital where employees kept a secret waiting list to cover up delays. That scandal led to the resignation last month of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

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