- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 10, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono has requested a deeper look into the wait times veterans are subjected to when seeking health care in Hawaii.

Hirono sent a letter Monday to the Office of Inspector General within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

An internal VA audit released Monday said that new patients wait an average of 145 days in Hawaii for an appointment with a primary care physician, the longest by far of any state in the nation. Delays for established patients were substantially shorter, with a wait for an appointment with a primary care physician lasting 4.5 days on average, according to the audit. In a letter sent separately to Hirono, the VA stated that 91 percent of its established patients were seen within 14 days of their desired appointment date.

But Hirono believes established patients also wait too long based on complaints she’s received from veterans.

“The information provided to me by the VA is not consistent with what veterans share with me and my staff regarding wait times,” Hirono said in her letter. “Veterans claim much longer wait times.”

Wayne Pfeffer, director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, said he welcomes any external review that would help the hospital improve.

“Even before this became a national issue, we were trying to address it, and the numbers have come down,” Pfeffer said. “The hiccup we’re trying to resolve is the influx of new veterans, and the demand has been greater than the capacity.”

A waiting list for new patients showed 1,900 veterans waiting for services May 15, but his staff has worked to reduce the number to the mid-600s, Pfeffer said. They have been calling every veteran on the list and setting up new time slots for appointments, he said.

“The goal is to bring that down so nobody waits more than 30 days,” Pfeffer said. “We’ve made a lot of progress. … We’ll feel comfortable when every veteran is seen in a timely manner.”

Hirono asked the VA for information after veterans shared concerns about wait times for appointments, turnover of medical personnel and travel requirements for neighbor island veterans to access health care.

“The response provided by the VA was incomplete,” Hirono said. “This elevated my concerns, which led me to contact the VA inspector general for answers.”

Some of the information Hirono requested was immediately available for release, Pfeffer said.

Hirono said she would like to know how long veterans are waiting for appointments from their first contact with the VA.

The wait times released by the VA were based on the date that the veteran wanted an appointment, not the date that the veteran first contacted the VA, Pfeffer said.

Auditors met with the center’s schedulers and did not find any inappropriate scheduling activity among the staff, he added.

The Office of Inspector General will review the request when it’s received and will send a response to Hirono’s office, said spokeswoman Catherine Gromek. That office within the Department of Veterans Affairs employs about 600 people nationwide. Its staff handles requests for audits ranging from individuals who feel they were mistreated to government officials who request institutional reviews. In the six months leading up to April, its staff closed 418 investigations and made 208 arrests.

Also Monday, the U.S. House passed the Veterans Access to Care Act with a 426-0 vote. The bill would require the VA to offer non-VA care at the department’s expense to veterans who could not get an appointment within the time goals or those who live more than 40 miles away from the VA medical facility. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard called that bill a first step but said it did not go far enough.

“Even with this bill, veterans will still face obstacles to receiving care and would only be able to seek private health care if their wait time exceeds VA’s arbitrary wait time goals,” Gabbard said in a statement.



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