- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota’s Veterans Affairs clinics and hospitals fare slightly better in delivering timely care to veterans than the national average.

The Associated Press analyzed six months of VA data and found that 1.9 percent of medical appointments completed at its clinics and hospitals in Minnesota failed to meet the VA’s timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days. That beats the national average of 2.8 percent.

However, several of the state’s facilities fell below that standard, and last year’s national scandal surrounding falsified records to hide outsized delays still looms over parts of Minnesota. VA officials are still investigating whistleblower claims from former Minneapolis VA employees who say they were instructed to alter patient records.

“I take it all with a grain of salt until it’s proven out,” Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat and veteran, said of any data measuring the VA facilities’ performance. “I feel like we’ve been burned too many times and the stakes are too high to take our eye off improving those times.”

PROBLEM SPOTS

The AP analyzed wait times at 940 VA hospitals and clinics to gauge improvements since the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May and legislation passed in August meant to tackle growing delays. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how things have changed because the VA changed its wait time measuring at the end of the summer.

Minnesota’s worst-performing clinics fared better than the problematic facilities nationwide, mostly found in a handful of southern states. Nearly 4 percent of appointments at a clinic in Maplewood stretched beyond the 30-day goal, and more than 3 percent of appointments in Ramsey were delayed beyond 30 days.

Minneapolis VA Director Patrick Kelly said both clinics’ struggles, driven by a fast-increasing patient base, are on his radar. Kelly said problems are most acute for hearing and vision appointments.

Scheduling is sensitive at smaller clinics, where a single doctor’s departure can result in huge delays until a position is filled. Losing physicians and staff to higher-paying jobs is a constant struggle in Minnesota, Kelly said, particularly in smaller towns.

To cut down on delays, Minnesota VA officials established evening and weekend hours at a few locations, and Kelly said they’re tapping a federal cash infusion to hire extra physicians in Ramsey and Maplewood.

“We’re doing OK. We want to do better,” Kelly said.

CHOICE OF CARE

Minnesota veterans aren’t making much use of a major piece of the legislation, the “Choice” program, which allows vets the option of getting care outside the system.

Kelly attributed the lackluster use to confusion about how it works and some restrictions that may have limited its use. The VA recently changed a rule to clarify that veterans who live more than a 40-mile drive from the nearest VA facility can get an appointment with a private physician.

Walz called that “a step in the right direction.”

SUCCESS IN MINNEAPOLIS

Minnesota’s flagship facility - the Minneapolis VA Medical Center - ranks among the best of the nation’s busiest VA hospitals, where only 1 percent of the more than 276,000 appointments involved a wait of more than 30 days.

Kelly attributes that to steady, predictable growth in the local veteran population and several new clinics in Minnesota where veterans can go rather than drive to Minneapolis.

WHISTLEBLOWERS

The scandal that led to Shinseki’s resignation gives Walz cause to question whether there’s anything to celebrate in Minnesota.

The VA’s inspector general is still investigating claims from former employees at the Minneapolis hospital that they were instructed to make it look like veterans had canceled appointments in order to hide long delays.

The inspector general’s office did not return multiple requests for comment, but Kelly confirmed that investigation is still open. A Hibbing VA outpatient clinic is also being investigated after reports that appointments were manipulated to camouflage delays.

“I am incredibly skeptical,” Walz said. “They have really put me in a position where they do not get the benefit of the doubt.”

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