- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - THE PROBLEM: Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics in some parts of the country are still struggling to reduce the amount of time patients have to wait for non-emergency care, according to a review by The Associated Press. Government data shows the system wait times are generally worse in the Southeast, including Georgia. Of the 100 VA hospitals and clinics with the most patients waiting more than 30 days for care, 10 are in Georgia.

A small VA clinic near Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia, has been among the worst performers. About 13 percent of patient visits completed between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28 involved a wait of more than 30 days, far more than the national average of 2.8 percent. This winter, it has had close to the longest average wait for mental health care in the country. At the VA hospital in Dublin, one in 36 appointments completed during those six months involved a wait longer than 60 days.

STATISTICS: Of the 23 VA hospitals and clinics in Georgia, only 9 did better than the national average, including the two medical centers in Augusta and an outpatient clinic in Savannah. The best-performing clinics, according to the data, were in Hinesville and Valdosta. Both saw less than 1 percent of appointments delayed by more than 30 days.

TRENDS: The causes of these delays vary. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, said he attributed some of the delays to simple supply-and-demand. For instance, the Columbus area is home to Fort Benning, a massive military base. Consequently, the number of VA patients in the area outpaces local resources. Rural southern Georgia is medically underserved, both at the VA and in the private sector.

“There’s Atlanta. And then there’s the rest of Georgia,” said Randy Goodman, state commander of the American Legion in Georgia. “And most of the rest of Georgia is rural. And a lot of veterans live in these rural areas, and not a lot of medical specialists.”

The wait times can vary widely by location.

Pat Phillips, an officer with the American Legion in Blairsville, said he started getting care at the local VA clinic after he had a stroke in October of 2012.

“I can walk up there with no appointment at all and see the doctor right away,” he said. VA statistics bear that out, showing that only 90 patient visits there between September and February took longer than 30 days to complete, out of 5,046 appointments handled overall.

Asked if he could get the same prompt care with a private-sector doctor in the area, Phillips said, “No, sir.”

POTENTIAL FIXES: A deal was recently struck to give the VA use of a 19,000-square-foot building at a Defense Department medical center at Fort Benning, near Columbus. That will allow the clinic to bring on new providers that will triple the current capacity for mental health patients in Columbus, said Dr. Daniel Dahl, psychiatrist and associate chief of staff for mental health at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System, which oversees that clinic.

Dr. David Bower, chief of staff at Atlanta VA Medical Center, said scheduling clerks have been better trained on setting appointments. The hours of care have been expanded, and the facility is expanded to make way for more providers.

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