- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - The majority of Veterans Administration medical facilities in Washington state are meeting timeliness goals for scheduling doctor visits, but centers in Walla Walla, Vancouver and Chehalis have yet to hit their targets.

At the VA hospital in Walla Walla, the worst of the three, 4.6 percent of completed appointments were subject to delays of at least 31 days from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28, according to VA data reviewed by The Associated Press.

The AP examined waiting times at 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics around the nation 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.

Nationally, the AP analysis found more than 893,000 medical appointments completed at VA medical facilities from August to February failed to meet the health system’s timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days.

The delays in Walla Walla, Vancouver and Chehalis were higher than the national average of 2.8 percent, and in spite of the calls for reform and congressional action, the percentage of patients waiting at least a month for care at the two medical centers got worse between September and February, the analysis found.

At the other 11 VA facilities in the state, fewer than 2.4 percent of appointments experienced such delays.

Brian Westfield, director of the Walla Walla medical center, said there were no obvious reasons for the wait times there. “We have no significant vacancies,” Westfield said of his workforce.

The Walla Walla hospital serves a rural, 17-county region of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, Westfield said. The service area has about 72,000 veterans and long drives to receive care might explain some delays.

The AP found that 4.6 percent of the roughly 26,000 appointments completed at Walla Walla between September and February required waits of at least a month. Care was delayed more than 90 days in 48 instances.

At the Vancouver clinic, about 4.1 percent of the nearly 49,000 completed appointments in the same period required waits of at least 31 days for care. There were 25 appointments in Vancouver that were delayed more than 90 days.

Daniel E. Herrigstad, spokesman for the VA Portland Health Care System, of which the Vancouver clinic is a part, said they were struggling with staffing issues at a time when demand was rising.

“Recruiting and keeping primary care providers and support staff has been a challenge,” Herrigstad said.

For Vancouver, outpatient visits grew last year and are up again this year, he said.

The Portland system was recently approved for an additional 12,000-square-foot leased space for primary care and specialty care in Vancouver, which should be operational in the next fiscal year, he said. Vancouver also has a planned new primary care clinic scheduled to be built on its campus, he said.

The Portland region also has instituted Saturday clinics to help cut wait times, he said.

Meanwhile, at the South Sound VA Clinic in Chehalis, 3.21 percent of more than 5,500 completed appointments required waits of at least a month for care.

Also, the VA medical center in Spokane reported 240 appointments that were delayed more than 90 days - easily the largest number of people at one facility in the state who waited that long.

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