- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina is home to the Army’s Fort Bragg, the Marines’ Camp Lejeune, and nine of the 50 Veterans Affairs medical facilities where patients are most likely to encounter a long wait for care.

The Associated Press analyzed six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide to identify the places that are struggling the most to deliver prompt care.

Eastern North Carolina was among the places where waits are worst.

At the VA clinic in Jacksonville, 16 percent of the appointments completed between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28 failed to meet the VA’s timeliness standard, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days.

That’s nearly six times the national average of 2.8 percent - enough to put the clinic among the top five most backed-up VA facilities in the country.

VA officials in North Carolina have been on a building spree in recent years to reduce backlogs for care, but so far the expansion of the network hasn’t kept pace with rising demand.

In October, the VA expects to open big new health center in Fayetteville that officials hope will help alleviate chronic delays for care.

Built within earshot of the heavy artillery range at Fort Bragg, the 250,000-square-foot outpatient center will have everything the VA’s cramped main hospital in Fayetteville doesn’t: 1,800 parking spots, spacious exam rooms, a specialty clinic for women, and - hopefully - shorter waits to see the doctor.

From September to February, roughly 1 in 13 appointments completed at the hospital failed to meet the VA’s timeliness standard, which calls for patients to wait no longer than 30 days for an appointment.

Fayetteville VAMC director Elizabeth Goolsby attributed problems to a variety of factors, but said the region has experienced an 8 percent increase in patient utilization per year.

“We’ve been at war for 13 years,” she said. Floods of young veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq are leaving the service and enrolling in the VA care system for the first time, she said.

The VA has tried to keep up with rising demand, but in eastern North Carolina it has fallen short. Since arriving at Fayetteville in 2010, Goolsby opened new clinics in Wilmington, Goldsboro, Pembroke and Hamlet. All now rank among VA locations with the highest percentage of appointments that fail to meet the 30-day limit.

Retired Marine Michael Fresia said he once showed up at the Jacksonville clinic for a routine physical and waited for two hours before a nurse told him he couldn’t be seen because the doctor was on vacation.

“I’ve almost abandoned the VA for any health care,” he said. “If you need to make an appointment, you are lucky to get through to a person.”

Goolsby said officials opened a new call center last fall to deal with the chronic problem of people being unable to talk to a live person on the phone. Previously, about a third of all calls to the Fayetteville VA were abandoned by patients tired of waiting on hold. Since opening the call center, abandonment is down to 5 percent, officials said.

The VA is still dealing with staffing shortages at some of its facilities, which Goolsby said is partly due to recruiting doctors and medical staff.

Eastern North Carolina is a magnet for veterans from all services. The two counties that are home to Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg have some of the highest concentrations of veterans per capita in the country. The Air Force has a base near Goldsboro, while the Coast Guard has a major installation in Elizabeth City.

The VA has started construction on a new clinic in Jacksonville and is trying to open a clinic in Sanford, north of Fort Bragg.

Not every clinic in the region is backed up. Some vets in the Jacksonville area said they’ve switched to the VA clinic in Morehead City, about a 43-mile drive to the east.

“It’s like night and day. You can get right in,” said Marine Corps veteran Brandy Bates, who served in Afghanistan.

___

Susanne M. Schafer contributed from Columbia, South Carolina.

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