- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

CINCINNATI (AP) - A Veterans Affairs medical facility in rural southern Ohio was among 75 VA clinics and hospitals across the country with the highest percentage of patients waiting more than a month for care.

An Associated Press review of VA data on wait times for 940 of the department’s facilities shows the Portsmouth VA Clinic led the state with nearly 5.7 percent of its appointments delayed past the VA’s goal for seeing patients within 30 days. That’s about double the national average of 2.8 percent of appointments delayed more than 30 days.

Nationally, a review of appointments completed from August through February shows nearly 894,000 appointments failed to meet that goal even after Congress pumped $16.3 billion into the system to help fix the problem after a scandal over delays.

Ohio’s percentages weren’t as bad as those in some other states, especially a handful of Southern states that have areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA’s sluggish planning process. In Ohio, nearly 26,000 appointments, or about 2.4 percent of 1.1 million, were delayed more than a month, according to data from September through February.

More than 900 across the state were delayed over 90 days.

Air Force veteran Jim Fegan said delays at the Portsmouth clinic were so frustrating that he switched to the Huntington VA Medical Center in West Virginia, about an hour’s drive from his home.

“I already have several appointments coming up at Huntington,” said the 61-year-old Portsmouth veteran, who had part of his left leg and some fingers amputated because of diabetes. “They seem to care more.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs data show 427 of Portsmouth’s more than 7,500 appointments were delayed at least 31 days, with 254 patients waiting 31 to 60 days and 63 waiting more than three months.

The clinic is operated by the Chillicothe VA Medical Center which, along with Portsmouth, was among nine Ohio facilities topping the national average of 2.8 percent for appointments delayed over a month. Chillicothe’s 4.1 percent was the highest among Ohio’s four VA medical centers.

Chillicothe VA spokeswoman Stacia Ruby said the rural locations of the center and its six clinics, including Portsmouth, have made staffing difficult.

“It is more challenging to recruit and retain health care providers for these areas because we are competing with bigger cities,” Ruby said.

But Ruby said the congressional funding enabled Portsmouth and Chillicothe to each add a doctor-nurse team in recent months, and the center and its clinics are continually looking for ways to reduce waits.

Among Ohio’s medical centers, Cleveland and Dayton had the lowest percentages of appointments delayed at least 31 days at about 1.5 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively.

The Cleveland VA has extended some clinic hours and added more providers to help meet demand, said spokeswoman Ashley Trimble. Dayton VA spokesman Ted Froats said that center’s director reviews wait times daily, and a full-time recruiter was hired to help fill medical positions since medical providers are in short supply.

But while delays persist at all of Ohio’s facilities, Marine Corps veteran Tom Davis, of Portsmouth, still prefers the VA over civilian health care despite his frustration with securing care, especially by specialists.

“I just think the VA treats veterans with more dignity and respect,” said Davis, 48. “And they’re just better at understanding veterans and their problems.”

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