- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Officials from the Providence VA Medical Center say it’s making strides toward providing better care to veterans even as government data shows it is still failing to provide every patient with a primary care appointment within 30 days - the range the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has told Congress is its standard.

About 2,700 medical appointments completed at the Providence VA from September to February failed to meet the health system’s timeliness goal, according to government data reviewed by The Associated Press. This was out of a total of 136,995 completed appointments, or about 2 percent. Of those, 574 involved a delay of longer than 60 days - a figure that does not include cancellations, patient no-shows or instances where the veteran gave up and sought care elsewhere.

Still, the Providence VA fared better than the health system’s national average for delayed appointments, which was 2.8 percent.

The AP analyzed six months of data from 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide and found that the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has not decreased since Congress gave the VA $16.3 billion in August to hire more doctors, open new clinics and expand a program for veterans to obtain care outside the department’s facilities.

The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

Waits throughout the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast states were generally mild. Many of the delay-prone hospitals and clinics are clustered within a few hours’ drive of each other in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA’s sluggish planning process.

Providence VA spokesman Winfield Danielson acknowledged the facility is “always looking for ways to improve.”

He said they’re planning to hire 58 new personnel over the next few months and extend hours to schedule more appointments. One area of focus, he said, is speeding up the process of how patients move from the waiting room to the doctor, which could free up more time.

The data shows that the number of vets waiting more than 30 days for care at the Providence VA increased over the time period; 463 appointments were delayed in February, compared to 360 in September.

Kim Ripoli, associate director for Rhode Island’s Division of Veterans Affairs, said her office has not fielded any complaints about wait times from veterans in recent months. While her department is not directly involved with the Providence VA, Ripoli works closely with veterans to ensure they’re receiving the appropriate services.

“Overall, I think the Providence VA has been receptive to the veteran population,” Ripoli said.

The medical center has recently expanded services for women veterans, Ripoli said, noting that they used to have to trek to Brockton, Massachusetts, to receive care.

She said most of the veterans she speaks to are very happy with the care they’re receiving and don’t mind having to wait longer than usual to see a specialist.

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