- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - Veterans seeking care at the lone Veterans Affairs hospital in the nation’s capital are getting appointments slightly faster than the national average, according to government data reviewed by The Associated Press.

From September through February, veterans had more than 230,000 appointments at the Washington VA Medical Center, and just over 2 percent of those were delayed 31 days or more. Nationwide, 2.8 percent of patients had to wait more than 30 days over the same period.

However, the number of patients waiting that long at the Washington facility was essentially flat from month to month. The delays spiked in January but improved in February. VA hospitals around the country also saw little to no improvement in their wait times over that period, the numbers show.

A VA audit conducted last year also found that wait times at the District hospital were roughly in line with the national average. But it’s difficult to say whether things have gotten better because the VA introduced a new method for measuring wait times at the end of the summer.

A scandal last year over delays and attempts to cover them up led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted Congress to pass a bill in August that aimed to improve the system. The AP examined waiting times at 940 VA hospitals and clinics to see how things might have changed since then. Nationwide, many of the hospitals and clinics that remain prone to delays are clustered in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence and a partly rural population.

Over 6 months at the Washington hospital, nearly 4,800 patients had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment, 700 had to wait more than 60 days and 94 had to wait more than 90 days.

The District of Columbia’s hospital was also seeing patients faster, on average, than the hospitals in Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore. However, the hospital in Martinsburg, West Virginia, was faring better, with less than 1 percent of patients having to wait at least 30 days.

Ian Topper, 29, an Army veteran who defused bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he hasn’t had any problems getting appointments at the Washington VA hospital, where he’s being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and back problems. But he’s been frustrated by other aspects of the VA bureaucracy. He said he had to resubmit paperwork and his medical records multiple times to become eligible for care.

“Just getting to that point where I can go to the VA and be seen by a doctor, took me a year,” said Topper, who lives in Washington and works for the multinational consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

The District also has a small outpatient clinic in the city’s southeast quadrant. Wait times there were much shorter than at the hospital. Of the 1,500 patients seen there over the same period, only five had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment, and one had to wait more than 60 days.

Like the hospital, the District’s outpatient clinic saw patients faster than other clinics in the region, including those in Baltimore and Fort Meade in Maryland and Fort Belvoir and Fredericksburg in Virginia.

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols .

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