- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

A patient's average wait for an appointment with a primary care doctor at Veterans Affairs medical clinics is seven months, according to a survey conducted by the American Legion.
The survey of 3,100 respondents found that 58 percent of Veterans Affairs patients had a doctor's appointment rescheduled, requiring an extra wait of 2.6 months and that 11 percent of patients surveyed were not granted long-term medical care by VA health clinics.
The results of the survey, intended to persuade Congress to increase VA health care spending, were presented yesterday at a conference of leaders visiting congressional offices.
"The impending attack in Iraq creates an exigency to create a health care solution for veterans," said Steve Thomas, a spokesman for the American Legion. "Sooner rather than later, the VA health care system must be rectified."
In recent years, the VA health clinics have been struggling to meet the need for a rising demand of veteran patients because of a 1996 law that declared all veterans eligible to receive medical care. The patient population of veterans health facilities has grown 54 percent since 1996.
In an appeal to a House of Representatives committee in January, Peter S. Gayton of the American Legion said, "The American Legion is outraged by the unnacceptable number of veterans waiting months to be treated at a VA medical facility. Clearly, VA is not meeting its own acceptable-access standards."
Veterans Affairs officials say they are trying to improve waiting times and other problems at VA clinical facilities. A VA survey shows that the number of patients who had to wait more than six months to see a doctor dropped from 318,000 in July 2002 to 236,000 in December and to 202,000 last month.
Dr. Robert Roswell, the VA's undersecretary for health, told the Associated Press that the VA is attempting to ensure a better response for patients by ensuring all primary care doctors retain a full load of 1,200 patients. The VA is also implementing home health care visits, interactive chats between patients and doctors, and home monitoring equipment to reduce the need for in-office appointments.
"There's no question that waiting times are a significant problem, but we're trying to resolve them," Dr. Roswell said.
President Bush's budget for 2004 has increased spending on veterans medical care 7.7 percent.
In its lobbying before Congress, the American Legion has requested mandatory instead of discretionary spending within the federal budget for VA health care. VA officials say that if they are granted budget requests, they hope to increase salaries and hire 1,000 more primary care doctors.
An American Legion campaign called I Am Not a Number is designed to present Congress with anecdotal evidence about the backlog of veteran patients.
"Legislation has already been introduced, and that's the high hurdle," said Mr. Thomas, of the American Legion. "Right now, funding is inadequate."

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