- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - With services scattered since Hurricane Katrina wrecked its hospital nearly a decade ago, New Orleans’ Veterans Affairs facility is among those where patients are most likely to have to wait more than a month for non-emergency care.

Nearly 6 percent of appointments made at the New Orleans facility between September and February were delayed by at least 31 days, according to an Associated Press analysis.

That compares to a national average of 2.8 percent. The VA’s timeliness standards call for patients to wait no longer than 30 days for an appointment.

The AP examined patient wait times at 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics across the country to see whether wait times have improved since a scandal over delayed care last year. In August, Congress passed legislation giving the VA an additional $16.3 billion to improve patient access to care.

Since then, the number of patients waiting extended periods for care has not declined. The AP also found big geographic disparities. Many of the hospitals and clinics with the longest waits were clustered in the South.

Long waits at the other 14 VA facilities in Louisiana were less frequent than they were in New Orleans. About 4 percent of appointments at the facilities in Alexandria, Lafayette and Baton Rouge were delayed by 31 days or more. Fewer than 1 percent were delayed that long in the Jennings, Natchitoches, Reserve, Monroe or Houma veterans clinics.

In Louisiana, the New Orleans VA facility is the largest, with more than 128,000 appointments completed during the six month period for which data was reviewed.

Patients are getting care in a series of temporary sites, since the city’s VA hospital was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters in August 2005. A new $995 million hospital is under construction, expected to treat its first inpatients sometime in 2016. The project has cost more and taken longer than originally expected.

Until the new facility opens, veterans seeking care in New Orleans receive outpatient services like mental health care, routine checkups and minor specialty procedures from clinics spread over leased space and repurposed buildings.

“We can’t do complex procedures right now. Anything that requires sedation, we cannot do until we have a facility,” said Dr. Jamie Buth, associate chief of staff for clinics at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, a network that includes the New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Houma and other VA facilities across the state’s southeastern region.

Veterans who need nonemergency inpatient services, like hip replacements or planned surgeries, are usually sent to VA facilities that are hours away in Shreveport, Houston, or Mississippi, though some are sent to nearby community hospitals, Buth said.

She acknowledged the higher wait times in New Orleans, saying the facility has some inefficiencies because of post-Katrina space limitations and because it deals with more complex procedures.

But she said the VA is providing more outpatient services to veterans than it did before Katrina, by expanding its Baton Rouge clinic and adding clinics in Slidell, Hammond and St. John the Baptist Parish.

“Here at the VA, I think we do a great job taking care of our veterans. We have our warts and blemishes like anyone else, but I will stand behind what we do. We provide a lot of care for people,” Buth said.

The new hospital under construction in New Orleans will add services and staff. Before that opens, Buth said she expects to whittle down wait times across southeast Louisiana by hiring 95 new people, including doctors, nurses and clerical staff. Another primary care doctor and an ear, nose and throat specialist have been hired for Baton Rouge’s clinic, for example.

Money for the hiring comes from the federal law passed in August.

While the New Orleans hospital is under construction, delays in plans for a veterans’ clinic in Lake Charles have drawn strong criticism from Louisiana officials. The VA said progress has been pushed back by several months.

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