- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Relatively few veterans in South Dakota had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment at a Veterans Affairs medical center or clinic, according to an analysis of the most recent government data.

The Associated Press examined waiting times at 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28 to see how things might have improved since a scandal over delays and attempts to cover them up led to the resignation of the agency’s secretary and prompted lawmakers in August to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.

The AP’s analysis found that, nationally, 2.8 percent of all appointments handled by the health system failed to meet the federal timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days. The majority of South Dakota’s VA locations fared better than the national average, less than 1.5 percent, though three fell just short: Fort Meade at 3.6 percent, Rapid City at 3 percent and Sioux Falls at 2.9 percent, according to the data.

“Our veterans are getting the care they need. And if they’re waiting, it’s often something we’re doing to support their choice of when they get their health care and where they get their health care,” said Darwin Goodspeed, a Navy veteran who now leads the Sioux Falls VA system. He cited possible examples, such as snowbirds who won’t see their VA doctor until returning from warmer climates or veterans in rural areas scheduling numerous appointments for one trip to a VA site.

“A fairly large majority of them have agreed to stay on that waiting list because they want to wait for a VA doctor. They don’t want to go a civilian doctor. They’re willing to wait,” added Ken Laughlin, adjutant executive director of the Disabled American Veterans for South Dakota.

One potential change that could alter some wait times in western South Dakota is the proposed closure of the inpatient hospital at Hot Springs, which would shift some services to Rapid City, Laughlin said.

But VA Black Hills Health Care System acting director Jo-Ann Ginsberg said that wouldn’t be the case because a new outpatient clinic would be built in Hot Springs to handle all other services, she said.

“Rather than be housed in an outpatient part of our hospital, they’d be housed in an outpatient clinic,” Ginsberg said.

Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of the VA, said that when he looked at the Hot Spring hospital’s data a few months ago, just five patients, on average, were spending the night.

That illustrates some of the unique challenges the VA faces when it comes to allocating resources and dealing with patient access, he said. Only the VA would continue to operate a full-service hospital in an area with so little demand for inpatient services, Sloan said, adding that the Black Hills hospital staff had done a good job ensuring quality care.

“Go find a private sector hospital” operating with just five patients per night, he said. “In fact, you won’t find them.”

While the overall number of South Dakota appointments with a wait time of 61 days or more was relatively low, it was higher in January and February at the Fort Meade hospital, which Ginsberg attributed to various factors, such as post-holiday scheduling, snowbirds scheduling for their return and some farmers taking advantage of the slower month.

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