- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Many veterans at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Columbia waited longer than a month to see a doctor, even after Congress gave the VA system an additional $16.3 billion to reduce long waits for care.

Nearly 9,700 medical appointments completed at the Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28 failed to meet the VA’s timeliness standard, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days, according to government data reviewed by The Associated Press. About a quarter of those appointments involved a wait of more than 61 days.

Those statistics place the hospital among the VA facilities that have struggled to delivery care promptly.

The Associated Press analyzed six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics to see whether anything has improved since a scandal over long wait times and attempts to cover them up led the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted Congress to pass reform legislation in August.

The review found that, nationally, the number of veterans waiting more than a month for care hasn’t declined, and the number of appointments that take more than 90 days to schedule has nearly doubled.

It also found that many of the facilities struggling the most with long waits were clustered in the Southeast U.S., while delays in other parts of the country were relatively rare.

VA officials in South Carolina say they’ve been hiring doctors and expanding services in order to keep pace with a steady rise in the number of vets using the VA health care system.

Officials at the two major veterans’ medical centers in the state - the Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston - say they believe they are making progress, more work needs to be done.

Patients at the Charleston VA hospital are already far less likely to encounter a long wait for treatment. Only 1.2 percent of the appointments there failed to meet the VA’s timeliness standard, compared to 4.8 percent in Columbia. The national average is 2.8 percent.

The two sites have associated VA clinics in Spartanburg, Florence, Greenville, Sumter, Orangeburg, Myrtle Beach, Anderson, Rock Hill, Goose Creek, Aiken and Beaufort.

In total across the state, there were 14,613 appointments where care was delayed at least 31 days. In 736 cases, appointments were delayed more than 90 days, according to the figures.

Dorn’s Director, Timothy McMurry, said his operation set up weekend and specialty clinics to attack areas with the most wait times, which included dental, rehabilitation, mental health and optometry.

McMurry said Dorn has hired 39 physicians, 88 registered nurses and 40 medical clerks since last May.

“We have improved it. We’ve come a long way, and we still have a long way to go,” McMurry said.

In Charleston, Johnson spokeswoman Tonya Lobbestael said their system starts looking for more physicians once doctors get near 80 percent of their case load limit. Charleston’s charming setting and being near the Medical University of South Carolina makes recruiting physicians easier, Lobbestael added.

And even though the numbers of veteran patients has been growing from 5 to 7 percent every year, the center is adapting to the greater load, she said.

“We want them to come. We want veterans to get the health care they deserve,” Lobbestael said.

Retired Army veteran Calvin Cole, 49, said he’s been impressed with the counseling system at Dorn, which calls to remind him if he forgets an appointment.

“I would say it has gotten a little easier. If I miss an appointment they call and get after me,” the 21-year Army vet-turned-realtor said. “Dorn has been really great in that area.”

___

David B. Caruso contributed to this report from New York City.

Follow Susanne M. Schafer on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/susannemarieap

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