- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - More than 1,000 veterans have been waiting three months or more for initial medical appointments within the Veterans Affairs Department’s health care system in New Mexico, according to the findings of an audit released Monday.

The wide-ranging audit covered hundreds of VA hospitals and clinics across the country, including the medical center in Albuquerque where officials previously said more than 3,000 patients were assigned to a doctor who didn’t actually see them.

The audit found new patients seeking primary care within New Mexico’s VA system wait an average of 46 days, while those needing specialty care wait nearly two months. New patients seeking mental health care wait an average of 38 days.

VA officials in Albuquerque were reviewing the audit. A spokesman had yet to comment on its findings, and it was unclear whether any veterans were put at risk by waiting.

VA hospitals and clinics in other states had new patient waits three times the average wait in New Mexico, but veterans in Albuquerque and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation are still concerned about delays in care and the quality of care they receive.

“What has happened at the VA is a betrayal of our veterans - men and women who fought for our freedom - and it is unacceptable,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement Monday.

Udall’s office pointed to the 3,485 veterans who waited more than 30 days for an appointment. That represents about 8 percent of the total appointments scheduled within the system.

“These findings mirror complaints I have heard from veterans, family members and VA whistleblowers - concerns that the VA initially said were unfounded,” Udall said. “The audit again confirms that the VA has not been open and honest with the public or with me about systemic problems with patient wait times.”

While the audit shows 92 percent of all appointments are scheduled within 30 days in the New Mexico VA system, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham questioned the findings since they rely on information provided by the VA. She continued her call Monday for an independent investigation.

The audit is the first nationwide look at the VA network following the uproar that began with reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center. A preliminary audit last month found that long patient waits and falsified records were “systemic” throughout the VA medical network.

Auditors said New Mexico is among the dozens of facilities that require further review.

Richard Cowsill of Rio Rancho, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran with stage-four lung cancer, said he’s glad a spotlight is being shined on the VA. He said his wife had to fight for him to receive authorization to get the treatment he needed outside the VA system after waiting weeks to see an oncologist.

“They put my life in jeopardy,” Cowsill said.

The decorated veteran did three tours in Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange. He was among those who shared their stories during a town hall last weekend with U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, R-N.M., and he wants other veterans to push for care outside of the VA system.

“It’s not about me, it’s not about them. It’s about our brothers and sisters. We have to get them free from that place,” he said Monday. “We were able to pull it off and now we have a team of doctors and we feel so safe and we feel so good.”



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