- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Veterans Affairs officials in Tennessee blame staffing shortages for long wait times at several of the state’s rural and small-town clinics.

The AP examined six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics to gauge whether things have improved since a scandal over delays led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May, and prompted lawmakers in August to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.

Tennessee is among the states where the VA has struggled most to reduce long waits for care. It is home to eight of the 100 VA sites with the highest percentage of appointments that fail to meet the department’s timeliness standard, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days.

The VA clinics in Athens, Columbia and Dover were among facilities in the U.S. with the highest percentage of patients waiting more than 30 days for nonemergency care between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28.

At the clinic in Athens, of 1,032 total appointments, 155 were not completed within 30 days. That’s about 15 percent of appointments, compared to the national average of 2.8 percent. In Columbia, the percentage was 14 percent; and in Dover, 11 percent.

The busiest clinic was in Memphis, with 189,505 appointments completed. The delay there was only 1.2 percent.

Jessica Schiefer is a spokeswoman for the VA’s Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, which includes the clinics in Athens, Columbia and Dover. In a written statement she attributed the waits at the three clinics to shortages of providers, either doctors or nurse practitioners.

The Dover clinic went from a delay rate of less than 2 percent last September to 16 percent in November and back down to about 8 percent in February.

Schiefer said the clinic has only two providers when fully staffed and was short one provider during the time of high delays. A second provider has since been hired and she predicted that wait times would decline in the coming months.

In Athens, health system director Juan Morales recently discussed the delays there at a town hall meeting for veterans. He said a provider has been out sick, but a new chief medical officer and nurse practitioner have been selected for the clinic, according to Schiefer. That clinic went from 22 percent of appointments delayed in September to less than 7 percent in February.

The trend was reversed in Columbia, where the delay rate rose from 13 percent to 25 percent over the same period. Schiefer said the Columbia clinic and Tennessee Valley system are working to hire four providers there.

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