- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - A veteran getting care at the VA hospital in Iowa City is about twice as likely to have to wait more than a month for an appointment as a vet who goes to the VA hospital in Des Moines, according to government data.

Despite that disparity, patients at the state’s two VA hospitals and 12 clinics are getting medical care as fast, or faster, than the national average, according to a review by The Associated Press.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Iowa City had 2,727 appointments in a recent six-month span that failed to meet the system’s goal, which calls for patients to wait no longer than 30 days for non-emergency care. That amounted to 3 percent of the 92,296 appointments the hospital completed between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28. That is slightly worse than the national average of 2.8 percent. More than 200 appointments were delayed at least 91 days.

By contrast, the VA hospital in Des Moines reported more appointments during the six-month period and far fewer in which care was delayed more than 30 days. Of 98,569 appointments completed in Des Moines, 1,476 didn’t meet the timeliness standard, or 1.5 percent overall.

Put another way, about one in 33 appointments in Iowa City didn’t meet the standard compared to one in 64 in Des Moines.

The AP reviewed appointment data covering 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics. In response to concerns about long waits for care at some hospitals, Congress in August gave the VA an additional $16.3 billion to hire more doctors, open new clinics and take other steps to tackle the problem.

Wait times for VA patients in Iowa have generally stayed flat since September.

Appointments for most services sought at the Des Moines hospital are often completed in less than two weeks, and some are scheduled within days, said Central Iowa VA spokeswoman Kristi Catrenich said.

“We’re pretty blessed here in the Midwest with some short wait times,” she said.

Iowa City VA spokesman Jon Pruett said the hospital’s slightly longer average wait times reflect more complex medical cases its doctors sometimes see due to its partnership with the nearby University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

In some cases, care is not immediately available because patients need a specialty service or there are limitations in staffing, which is a challenge in the private sector as well, he said.

Patients may see longer delays in areas such as audiology, podiatry and dermatology, which have a shortage of providers, he said, and some of those areas require the hospital to schedule an appointment with an outside clinic.

Pruett said the hospital was proud of the number of patients it serves but always looking for ways to improve.

“We’re motivated by this to really continue pressing forward and finding better ways to serve our veteran patients,” he said.

All but one of Iowa’s 12 VA clinics, which see far fewer patients than the hospitals, reported wait times well below the national average. About 99 percent of their appointments met the 30-day timeliness standard.

The exception was the clinic in Mason City, which reported that 272 appointments, or 3.4 percent of 7,975 completed, took longer than 31 days. Catrenich said the clinic is in the process of recruiting physicians to fill two vacancies, and the numbers showed a sharp drop in wait times in February.

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