- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - The Veterans Affairs hospital in Clarksburg has struggled to reduce the number of patients facing long waits for care, even after Congress injected billions of dollars into veterans’ health care last summer.

From September through February, the Louis A. Johnson VA hospital had 7.1 percent of its appointments delayed by more than 30 days, the fifth-highest percentage among VA medical centers nationwide.

That’s considerably worse than the national average of 2.8 percent among all VA facilities. It also substantially trails most other VA facilities in West Virginia.

Over the six-month period, nearly 13,000 of 456,800 medical appointments at VA facilities in West Virginia failed to meet the health system’s timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days, according to government data reviewed by the Associated Press. The numbers include four VA medical centers and 10 outpatient centers.

About 5,700 out of 80,300 appointments, or 7.1 percent, were delayed more than 30 days at the Clarksburg VA hospital. VA medical centers in Huntington and Beckley were close to the national average. The VA hospital in Martinsburg excelled, with fewer than 1 percent of appointments delayed more than 30 days.

At the Clarksburg VA, 657 appointments stretched longer than 90 days. Only one other medical center had a higher percentage of such waits.

Clarksburg VA Director Beth Brown said the facility has aimed to address staffing issues: for instance, by adding optometrists, recruiting primary care providers, hiring nurse practitioners and physician assistants, and aiming to line up replacements before vacancies exist.

The Tucker County outpatient center expanded last year, and the Braxton County location will double its capacity next calendar year, Brown said.

She said that the hospital system is turning toward more primary care in people’s homes and webcam-based interactions for appointments ranging from standard care to mental health services. It’s been particularly helpful for veterans in hard-to-reach rural areas, she said.

Still, some veterans say they haven’t seen much progress, said George Davis, a Fairmont resident, a retired Army major who served in Vietnam and local veterans advocate. Davis said he stopped using the Clarksburg VA for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder several years ago, though he commended the primary care providers.

“There’s not been a whole lot done that provides any kind of satisfaction to the veterans who are sitting around waiting months and months and months,” Davis said.

Brown said sometimes, patients want to wait for certain doctors or delay appointments, which can affect the numbers.

Nationwide, 1 in 36 patient visits to a VA caregiver involved a delay of at least a month from August through February - close to the same ratio for West Virginia from September through January.

The AP examined waiting times to see how things might have improved since a scandal over delays and attempts to cover them up led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted lawmakers in August to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how things have changed since Shinseki’s May resignation because the VA introduced a new method for measuring wait times at the end of the summer.

In August, President Barack Obama signed legislation giving the VA an additional $16.3 billion to hire doctors, open more clinics and expand a program that allows vets facing long delays to get care from a private-sector doctor.

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