- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - More than 18,000 medical appointments were delayed at least a month at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics in Pennsylvania during a recent six-month period, according to an Associated Press review of government data.

But the vast majority of veterans who sought nonemergency medical care at the state’s 41 facilities received it within the VA’s 30-day goal of wait times, and the state fared better with wait times than the national average.

Pennsylvania’s VA facilities reported 987,214 completed appointments during the six-month period. Of those, 18,213 required waits of more than 30 days. That represents 1.8 percent of the statewide total, compared with the national average of 2.8 percent.

The Associated Press analyzed six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide to identify the ones struggling the most to deliver prompt care. Nationally, the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has largely stayed flat since Congress gave the department $16.3 billion in August to hire more doctors, open new clinics and expand a program to administer care outside the VA. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

Waits throughout the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast states are generally mild. 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.

Some Pennsylvania highlights:

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The state’s busiest VA facility, the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, reported the largest number of waits exceeding 30 days - 6,951 or 3.7 percent of its 185,786 appointments.

It was the only one of the state’s seven VA hospitals whose average wait time exceeded the national average.

Officials at the Philadelphia hospital, which serves veterans in the nation’s fifth most populous city and six surrounding counties in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, said it provides specialized surgical, medical and behavioral health services.

“Demand in these specialty areas can lead to slightly elevated wait times beyond 30 days; however, veterans are appropriately triaged for medical urgency and scheduled as clinically indicated,” they said.

Efforts to reduce wait times are continuing and include hiring additional staff, reviewing work flow and providing training in proper scheduling practices, the officials said.

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Among Pennsylvania’s 34 VA outpatient clinics, five had wait times that exceeded the national average.

Tiny Northampton County Outpatient Clinic in the rural northeastern Pennsylvania borough of Bangor had the largest percentage of waits longer than 30 days - 5.5 percent, or 107 of its 1,940 appointments.

Bill Klaips, the public affairs officer at the clinic’s parent facility, the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center, said the clinic is staffed by two doctors. The departure and replacement of one doctor and delays caused by winter storms contributed to the longer wait times, he said.

“I think we’re doing pretty good out there. I don’t think we’re doing as good as we can,” Klaips said.

The other clinics whose wait times exceeded the national average were the Victor J. Saracini VA Clinic in Horsham, the Johnstown VA Clinic, the Crawford County VA Clinic in Meadville and the State College VA Clinic.

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