- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Army veteran George Branson waited more than a year for his knee replacement surgery at a Veterans Affairs hospital, working through the pain and frustration as he lifted boxes at a Wal-Mart distribution center in southwestern Kentucky.

Branson worried whether he could keep up his on-the-job pace as he waited for the surgery to be schedule at the VA hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.

“It seems like it just got put off, put off and put off,” the 58-year-old Hopkinsville, Kentucky, man said recently. “I told them ‘I need to get something done.’ All they wanted to do, it seemed like, was give you pain pills and that was it. I told them ‘I don’t want to get addicted on these pain pills.’”

His right knee was replaced last July, and he’s been satisfied with the results.

Some of his checkups are at his hometown VA outpatient clinic, in Hopkinsville, which has the highest percentage of patients enduring long waits for care of any VA facility in the country, according to government data reviewed by The Associated Press.

The AP examined waiting times at 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics nationwide from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28 to gauge whether things have improved since a scandal over delays prompted federal lawmakers passing a law last summer providing an additional $16.3 billion to hire more doctors, open more clinics and expand a program that lets veterans receive private-sector care.

The review found that, nationally, the number of delays was not getting smaller. It also found deep geographic disparities in how long vets had to wait for treatment. Many delay-prone facilities are clustered in a handful of Southern states.

Nearly 5,380 medical appointments were completed at the Hopkinsville VA clinic during that time, and nearly 20 percent of them failed to meet the health system’s timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days, the statistics showed.

That rate was roughly 7 times worse than the national average.

Nor did things improve over time. Fifteen percent of all the clinic’s appointments in September involved waits of at least 30 days, the statistics showed. By February, 24.5 percent of appointments resulted in at least monthlong waits.

Meanwhile, nearly 690 of all the September-through-February appointments at the Hopkinsville clinic involved delays lasting 31 days to two months, the review found.

Branson, who served in the Army from 1979 to 1986, said he’s been satisfied with the quality of care and timeliness of his appointments at the clinic.

“They can get me in in a pretty reasonable time,” he said.

Fellow veteran Wayne Hesson, 63, who served in the Navy from 1969 to 1970, also voiced satisfaction with the clinic.

“They’ve been nothing but good to me,” the Crofton, Kentucky, man said. “Everything on a timely manner. I’ve got no squabble here about them.”

Last August, President Barack Obama signed legislation giving the VA an additional $16.3 billion to hire doctors, open more clinics and expand a program that allows veterans facing long delays to get care from a private-sector doctor.

About 339,000 veterans live in Kentucky.

Martha Cassity, commander of the VFW’s statewide operations in Kentucky, said she wasn’t surprised by the findings at the Hopkinsville clinic.

The Hopkinsville area has a high concentration of veterans, due partly to its proximity to the Fort Campbell Army post along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, she said. Some soldiers stay in the area after leaving the Army, often due to spouses who have jobs or children who are in school, she said.

Longer wait times endured by some Hopkinsville-area veterans point to a need for more services, Cassity said.

“They definitely need another clinic,” she said.

The Hopkinsville VA clinic’s supervisor declined to comment, according to a woman who answered the phone at the clinic.

The VA’s outpatient clinic in Bowling Green was also among the most delay-plagued in the U.S. Nearly 9 percent of the appointments completed from September through February involved a delay of at least a month.

The VA clinic in Somerset was next, with nearly 6 percent of its appointments taking more than 30 days to complete, followed closely by the VA clinic in Berea, the statistics showed.

At the other end of the spectrum, VA clinics in nine other Kentucky communities had less than 1 percent of all appointments with such delays. Those clinics are in Louisville, Morehead, Hazard, Bellevue, Fort Knox, Owensboro, Florence, Clarkson and Carrollton.

The VA medical center in Louisville had 99,747 medical appointments during that time, and 1.5 percent of them resulted in waits lasting 30 days or longer. Of the 71,998 appointments at the VA hospital in Lexington, 5.9 percent of them had waits of at least a month.

In Hopkinsville, Branson is now dealing with back problems that he expects will result in another surgery. Tests showed he has fractures in his lower spine and a bulging disc. He received a round of shots that didn’t relieve the problem.

Once again, he’s working through pain while waiting for his doctors to fix the problem.

“It’s just making it harder for me to try to work,” he said.

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