- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A Veterans Affairs clinic in northwestern New Mexico ranks among the worst in the nation when it comes to the percentage of appointments that were delayed a month or longer.

While local VA officials say they’re doing their best to expand services in rural areas where recruiting is a challenge, advocates say more needs to be done - and quickly.

The AP examined wait times at 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics across the US to see how things might have improved since a scandal over delays and attempts to cover them up led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted lawmakers in August to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.

The clinic in Farmington, New Mexico, ranked sixth on the list with more than 14 percent of appointments delayed 31 days or longer from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28. That’s more than five times the national average.

Two other New Mexico clinics, in Santa Fe and Rio Rancho, and the hospital in Albuquerque, also ranked near the top of the list of VA facilities where patients are mostly likely to encounter long delays. However, numbers for February showed improvements in wait times at most of the facilities.

Local VA officials say they’re trying to identify the problem as they serve 60,000 New Mexico veterans via their medical center in Albuquerque and 13 rural clinics, where over the past few years they have expanded services.

“We are planning to send a team to our Farmington (clinic) in order to work with staff there and look deeper into the appointment processes,” said Sonja Brown, spokeswoman for the New Mexico VA health care system.

Many of the patients at the Farmington clinic are walk-ins who request to be seen the same day. Brown said the clinic staff will continue to do what they can to keep up with the requests, but she explained some rural clinics in the state have just a couple of providers and if one is out or sick appointments have to be rescheduled.

“Life happens despite our best plans,” Brown said.

Many of New Mexico’s veterans live in sparsely populated areas and recruiting doctors to serve in these rural areas presents challenges.

The VA is constantly looking for ways to improve care, including developing partnerships with other organizations in the community, Brown said.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat who has been critical of the VA and its transparency, said changes are just not happening fast enough.

The VA isn’t nimble and doesn’t have the right mechanisms to hold people accountable, she said.

“I continue to be disappointed and want the bureaucracy to change in the VA because if they don’t do that, it doesn’t matter what kind of investment we make, they’ll have limited success,” said Grisham. “I have very little patience for the VA to continue to do the very same practices.”

Veterans in Farmington said once they got care from the VA, it was good but hurried because the providers seemed overwhelmed.

They say it’s the wait for a routine appointment that frustrates them.

Retired Marine Sgt. Pat Giguere, 46, commander of the Disabled American Veterans chapter in San Juan County, said he turned fully to VA care after a 2010 back surgery that left him unable to work.

With tours of duty, including ones in support of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he got out of the service in 1994 with four herniated discs.

“That’s a no-brainer,” he said when asked if the VA needs to add providers in Farmington. He said the waits have gotten worse in the last two years, at times six weeks.

“It just needs to be fixed,” he said.

President Barack Obama signed legislation last August giving the VA an additional $16.3 billion to hire doctors, open more clinics and expand a program that allows vets facing long delays to get care from a private-sector doctor. And yet some statistics related to wait times are worse now.

New Mexico VA received about $6.7 million as part of the effort. Brown said the money has been used to remedy staffing shortages.

___

AP Writer David B. Caruso contributed to this report.

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