- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs failed to meet its timeliness goal for thousands of Maryland VA medical appointments during the six-month period ending Feb. 28, according to data the government gave The Associated Press.

About 8,800 of more than 303,000 appointments completed during that period at VA clinics and hospitals in Maryland didn’t meet the agency’s goal of seeing patients within 30 days, the data show. The failure rate at Maryland facilities was 2.9 percent, or roughly one in 34 visits. That’s slightly worse than the national rate of 2.8 percent, or one in 36.

The VA Maryland Health Care System said it is filling staff vacancies and offering alternatives to some of the clinics with the longest wait times. Spokesman R. David Edwards also said the VA is aggressively adding staff throughout its Maryland system, which includes six outpatient clinics, hospitals in Baltimore and Perry Point, and the Loch Raven VA Community Living and Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore.

Since August, when Congress gave the VA an additional $16.3 billion to attack the problem, the Maryland system has hired 13 new primary care providers and is recruiting nine more, Edwards said in an email.

The Maryland facility with the longest wait times was an outpatient clinic in Glen Burnie, near Baltimore, with a failure rate of 8.1 percent over the five-month period.

Edwards said the Glen Burnie clinic had lost two of its five primary care providers - physicians, nurse practitioners or physician assistants - in the last six months. He said both positions have been filled, and a contract provider was brought in to provide temporary coverage in February.

“As a result of these actions, we are anticipating that the wait times for an appointment at the Glen Burnie VA Outpatient clinic will improve by the time of the next data release,” Edwards said.

The VA also offered patients waiting more than 30 days for an appointment at Glen Burnie the option of an earlier appointment at a VA outpatient clinic at Fort Meade, 10 miles away. New patients waiting more than 30 days were also given the option of an earlier appointment at one of four private clinics operated by Evergreen Health Care under a one-year contract aimed at reducing patient wait times, Edwards said.

Vietnam veteran Buddy George, commander of an American Legion post in Glen Burnie, said the Fort Meade clinic and the Baltimore hospital are preferred among post members for VA health care. He said he hadn’t heard anything bad about the Glen Burnie clinic but “Fort Meade is just about as close, so everybody goes to Fort Meade.”

The Cambridge clinic also had relatively long wait times, with 5.8 percent of completed appointments failing to meet the 30-day goal. Edwards said the rural clinic caters more to walk-in patients, which can result in longer wait times for scheduled appointments.

Afghanistan veteran Russell W. Myers Jr., adjutant of the American Legion’s Maryland department, said he appreciates VA efforts to communicate more with veterans since last year’s scandal over lengthy wait times. The VA health system has been holding regular meetings with Maryland veterans groups, listening to concerns, providing updates and answering questions, Myers said.

“Before the crisis last year, we rarely were in contact with VA medical centers,” he said. “We’re seeing positive approaches and trying to be collaborative in doing that. I think that’s really important.”

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