- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Most veterans in New Jersey have escaped the epic waits for treatment that characterize some Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics elsewhere in the country, but one small outpatient center in Vineland has been losing the fight to deliver care promptly.

Nearly 1 in 16 medical appointments at the VA clinic in Vineland involved a wait of a month or more in the six month period that ended in February, according to government data reviewed by The Associated Press.

That’s twice as bad as the national average, and places the clinic among the VA sites with the highest percentage of patients having to wait a month or more.

James Coty, spokesman for the Wilmington, Delaware, VA, which oversees the Cumberland County outpatient center, said some veterans experienced delays over the winter when a primary care provider needed to take unplanned leave for several weeks.

“During this time, the associate chief of staff for Ambulatory Care at the VAMC provided coverage for patients who required immediate care until the provider returned,” Coty said. “We recognize there are always opportunities for improvement and continue to focus our efforts on reducing wait times by continuing to review scheduling practices to assure we maximize efficiency, evaluating staffing levels, and working to secure expanded space to increase services.”

Republican Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi said it is infuriating that southern New Jersey veterans getting care from the center in Vineland face longer wait times than other residents.

“Veterans in South Jersey already have limited access to VA facilities and making them wait longer to get an appointment is like a slammed door in their face,” he said in a statement.

The Associated Press analyzed six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide to identify the ones struggling the most to deliver prompt care, and see how things have changed since Congress gave the VA $16.3 billion in August to hire more doctors, open new clinics and expand a program designed to make it easier for veterans to avoid waits by getting care outside the department’s facilities.

Nationally, the AP found that number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has largely stayed flat. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

About 6,200 medical appointments at VA facilities in New Jersey were delayed at least a month, but the state fared better than the country overall.

Waits throughout the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast states are 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.

Here’s a look at how the New Jersey VA system is faring:

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DELAYS BUT BETTER THAN NATIONAL RATE

About 2.3 percent of medical appointments for New Jersey’s veterans were delayed at least 31 days at the state’s 16 Veterans Affairs facilities from September to February, the data show. Nationally across the same period, 2.8 percent were delayed that long.

The state’s VA chief of staff, Dr. Steven Lieberman, said the department has been focused on access since before a scandal over excessive wait times led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Lieberman says he holds regular weekly meetings with medical and management staff and pays close attention to patient satisfaction surveys.

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NEW JERSEY CENTERS UP CLOSE

Most of the state’s facilities had a low delay rate. The Hamilton VA Clinic had no delays of a month or more, the data show.

By far the VA hospital in East Orange treated the most patients and had the second-highest delay percentage after Vineland. About 2.7 percent of the appointments completed there over six months involved a wait of longer than 30 days - but things have been improving. Only 1 percent of the appointments completed in February involved a wait that long.

Lieberman attributed the delays at East Orange to a shortage of specialists and said he is in the process of hiring more physicians. The Cumberland County clinic is under the purview of the Wilmington, Delaware-based VA system, said Lieberman, who did not have an explanation for those delays.

Joseph Hampton, the commander of the Vineland-based Veterans of Foreign Wars group and a Korean War vet, said he has heard no complaints about the Cumberland County center, though he has not been treated there.

“I’ve never been disappointed with the VA,” he said. “The contact I’ve had with them and people I know personally don’t complain about them. Like I said, I would join the military tomorrow if they would take me.”

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NEW MEDICAL STAFF

VA facilities in New Jersey have been authorized to hire 62 physicians, nurses and other staff to improve patient access to medical care, Lieberman said.

Congress’ action last summer also resulted in new town-hall style meetings, which occur every three months and are open to the public. The most recent meeting in Lyons drew about 75 to 80 people, including representatives from veterans groups and charity organizations.

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WHAT’S NEXT?

Around 10,000 veterans in the northern New Jersey counties of Sussex and Warren do not have a VA facility nearby, the biggest complaint Lieberman said he hears from veterans. The VA is meeting with stakeholders to determine if new facilities in those counties are needed. Lieberman estimated the state VA would finish its process by summer, sending the proposal - if there is one- to VA headquarters for further consideration.

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