- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City has one of the nation’s longest average wait times for new patients, according to a report released by the Veterans Affairs Department on Monday.

New patients wait 73 days on average for care at the Salt Lake City VA hospital, the ninth worst in the country and far longer than the department’s stated 14-day goal.

The findings are part of the first nationwide look at the VA system after reports emerged two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at an Arizona VA center.

The audit, carried out at 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics around the country, found long wait times for patients seeking their first appointments for both primary-care doctors and specialists. The review also indicated that 13 percent of schedulers reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment schedules to make patient waits appear shorter.

“To us, it’s never acceptable that veterans have to wait,” said Jill Atwood, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City system. “We’ve had access issues and we’re aware of it, and we’ve constantly been working to get those numbers down,” she said, citing extended evening and weekend hours that went into effect last summer.

In Utah, 447 veterans have been waiting more than 90 days for medical appointments, the audit found. An additional 792 who signed up for VA health care over the past 10 years have never been seen by a doctor, the report found.

Across the country, more than 57,000 veterans have waited 90 days or more for appointments and 64,000 enrollees have not seen a doctor in the past decade.

Overall, the report shows 92 percent of all appointments in Salt Lake City are scheduled within 30 days.

For veterans waiting for over 90 days in the Salt Lake City system can instead choose to see doctors in their community, for which the facility provides them a voucher, Atwood said.

The Utah system covers a 125,000 miles from southeast Idaho to central Nevada, whose smaller, rural clinics can mean longer wait times, she added. The facility offers to bring veterans to Salt Lake City for quicker care, she said, but many opt to stay close to home.

The audit said a 14-day target for waiting times was “not attainable” in light of the growing demand for VA services and poor planning.

The controversy over long wait times and falsified records at some facilities prompted VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30.

To prepare the report, investigators for the VA traveled to the sites around the country in May and June, including visits to the Salt Lake City VA hospital and outpatient clinics in South Ogden, Orem, West Valley City, Roosevelt and St. George.

Terry Schow, member of the Utah Veterans’ and Military Affairs Commission and the former executive director of Utah’s Department of Veterans Affairs, says he’s believed primary care at the Salt Lake City facility to be speedy.

“I’ve not ran into a veteran,” he said, “who’s had any complaints about the wait time.”



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