- Associated Press - Thursday, August 27, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System has hired more staff, streamlined services and decreased wait times for several types of medical appointments by as much as 12 days on average.

System officials held a media round table Thursday with representatives of the Little Rock Veterans Affairs Regional Office to discuss how both agencies are working to improve access to health care and benefits for the region’s veterans.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has required facilities across the country to reduce veteran wait times to within 30 days since a scandal over delays led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted lawmakers last year to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.

The Associated Press found in an analysis of wait times between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28 that only 2.53 percent of the veteran appointments at Arkansas’ medical centers and hospitals took longer than 30 days to complete. The Healthcare System said Tuesday that it finished the fiscal year in July with 2.02 percent of its appointments taking longer than 30 days. The wait times in Arkansas were slightly less than the national average of 2.80 percent of appointments over 30 days.

Tina McClain, Healthcare System acting chief of staff, said the system has hired 428 new staff members, including 36 physicians and 117 nurses, which helped with seeing patients more quickly. She said with retirement and attrition, the number of added full-time staff drops to just below 62.

“Seventy-three of the staff that we hired were from the veterans Access to Care initiative special purpose funding,” McClain said, adding that part of reducing wait times includes reaching out to private health care providers. “We’ve been utilizing the veteran’s choice program… we’ve been able to get veterans appointments in the community,” she added.

The System has reduced average wait times for specialty care consults from 19.6 to 7.6 days. The average wait time for primary care visits is 3.85 days, 3.06 days for a mental health appointment and 4.89 days to see a specialist.

The system has also added several tele-health programs including dietary counseling, pre-operation advice, wound care and for other medical needs. Officials also have plans to build a substance abuse treatment center and expand the System’s surgical functions.

Little Rock Veterans Affairs Regional Office Director Lisa Breun said the backlog of veterans waiting on benefit approval has also been reduced by about 86 percent locally, from a high of 5,682 claims in Jan. 2013 to 777 claims at the end of July.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman said Thursday that he and the other members of the Arkansas delegation have been working at the federal level to make sure the state veteran facilities have the resources to address delays in health care appointments. Boozman hosted a discussion earlier this year with private health care providers that have been serving veterans for specialty care and other issues but have had trouble getting reimbursed.

“I think the delegation has really been working hard to work with them to help with their efficiencies. The good news is that seems to be working,” Boozman said. “There are a few things that we still need to work on, including the payment to providers and the time it takes for disability (benefits) appeals. … The appeals process seems to drag on a long time.”

Boozman said more private providers will be requesting reimbursement because of the new federal initiatives that created pathways for veterans to see private providers to ease the backlog of appointments. He said he wants that process to become smoother so those providers continue to treat veterans.

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