- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Veterans seeking treatment at Missouri’s Veterans Affairs hospitals are being accommodated in a more timely fashion than the national average, according to VA records reviewed by The Associated Press.

The data showed that 8,230 - or 1.6 percent - of the more than 520,000 appointments completed at Missouri VA medical centers from September through February involved waiting times of 31 days or longer. Nationwide, 2.8 percent of appointments between August and the end of February at the 940 hospitals and outpatient clinics evaluated by the AP on average took at least 31 days to complete. The VA’s timeliness goal is seeing patients within 30 days.

Here’s a look at other details:

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MISSOURI’S SHOWING

The John J. Pershing VA hospital in southeastern Missouri’s Poplar Bluff had the poorest showing among the state’s five VA medical centers, with roughly 1,600 of its 47,770 appointments - 3.3 percent - delayed at least 31 days.

At the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital in mid-Missouri’s Columbia, 768 appointments involved a delay of 31 days or longer. That accounted for seven-tenths of a percentage point of the nearly 103,000 appointments completed there during the six-month span.

Waits of 31 days or longer were more frequent in Kansas City and St. Louis, unsurprising given the two facilities’ services are in more demand than the state’s other sites. Of the nearly 151,000 completed appointments at the Kansas City VA during the six-month span, 3,300 - 2.18 percent - didn’t meet the timeliness standard. And at St. Louis’ downtown VA hospital, slightly more than 1,500 - or 1.08 percent - of the roughly 146,000 appointments took 31 days or longer to complete.

At the St. Louis-area’s Jefferson Barracks VA hospital, 1,006 - 1.38 percent - of the site’s 72,719 appointments during the six-month period were delayed at least 31 days.

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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Nearly 894,000 medical appointments in the U.S. - roughly one in 36 - from August through February failed to be completed in 30 days or less. Those delays are not spread evenly throughout the more than 1,000 hospitals and clinics in the VA system; many of the delay-prone hospitals and clinics are clustered within a few hours’ drive of each other in a handful of Southern states.

The scrutiny follows last year’s revelations that veterans seeking care at various VA medical facilities faced chronic delays, with falsified waiting lists covering up those waits.

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MISSOURI VA’S RESPONSE

Kevin Arnhold, executive director to the head of the regional VA that encompasses most of Missouri and Kansas and parts of four other states, said the office has taken steps to lessen wait times, including collaborating with the federal agency in allowing patients to seek taxpayer-funded health care from private providers. In Missouri, Arnhold said, the VA spent $40 million on that from July through September.

As for the Poplar Bluff VA, a full-time dental hygienist and gastroenterologist have been hired, along with a part-time foot doctor, Arnhold said. Patient access to the site’s eye clinic also has been enhanced, and that region will get a new VA outpatient clinic by 2019 in Cape Girardeau, about an hour drive from Poplar Bluff.

“I think we’ve made tremendous strides in the last half year and continue to provide timely care to our veterans,” Arnhold said. “We’re addressing any gaps we might have and improving our access to care.”

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LAWMAKER WEIGHS IN

Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said she remains focused on “continuing to work to clean up the VA by ensuring any VA employee who retaliated against a whistleblower or cooked the books on wait times is fired,” as well as to ensure veterans get timely care.

“I shared the outrage of many Americans when this crisis came to light, and while new VA leadership is taking wait times seriously, we clearly have more work to do,” she said in an emailed statement to the AP, touting that her office’s veterans customer-satisfaction online program “gives a snapshot of the quality of VA care and allows veterans to share confidential feedback.”

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