- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The White River Junction VA Medical Center has hired about 40 people over the last several months to help improve care at the main facility and at five community clinics in Vermont and two in New Hampshire.

The money to make those hires came from a federal appropriation passed by Congress in the aftermath of revelations that many veterans in other parts of the country waited months before getting services they needed.

The Vermont VA system, which covers all of Vermont and four counties of New Hampshire, didn’t have the problems seen by veterans’ hospitals elsewhere. Now, the Vermont VA is using the extra money to improve the services they do offer.

“I think for the most part the VA is doing a really good job in Vermont,” said Brenda Cruickshank, the commander of the Vermont chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “With any facility there are going to be issues, civilian or federal. But I think for the most part here they try extremely hard to accommodate the needs of the veterans.”

Last year’s scandal over delayed medical treatment led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted Congress to approve $16.3 billion to reduce wait times. But an Associated Press review of appointment data for 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide found that the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has not decreased since the funding was passed in August.

The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

Nationwide, nearly 894,000 medical appointments, or almost 2.8 percent of those 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, according to the data.

Relatively few of those problems have been reported by VA facilities in the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast states. Many of the delay-prone hospitals and clinics are clustered within a few hours’ drive of each other in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA’s sluggish planning process.

At Vermont’s White River Junction facility, the average number of appointments that didn’t meet the 30-day goal from September to February was about 1.4 percent, the statistics show.

“We have always looked at our staffing and done what we can to have adequate staffing to cover the needs of the veterans in Vermont and large portions of New Hampshire,” said Deborah Amdur, the director of the White River Junction facility.

Amdur said the Vermont VA has been hiring, expanding the use of local clinics and the use of telemedicine, which grew 64 percent from 2013 to 2014, in which veterans can send medical information to specialists in a variety of fields via computer without having to visit White River Junction.

“We are very proud of the fact that we are one of the facilities that does a larger amount of care via tele-health, which we think is very appropriate being a rural area,” Amdur said.

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