- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Patients seeking care through the Fort Harrison Veterans Affairs Medical Center outside Helena are waiting an average of 48 days for their first appointment with a primary care doctor - more than three times longer than the department’s goal of 14 days.

The Montana findings released Monday are part of a national audit ordered after an uproar that began with reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center.

The department says an audit of 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics found that a complicated appointment process created confusion among scheduling clerks and supervisors. The review also indicated that 13 percent of schedulers reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment schedules to make patient waits appear shorter.

The VA now says the 14-day target was unattainable given existing resources and growing demand.

Montana VA Chief of Staff Dr. Trena Bonde said Monday she’s known about the wait times and that their goal is to reduce wait times to 30 days or fewer.

“Most people can wait 30 days to get in; I think that’s reasonable,” she said.

Montana’s sites at Fort Harrison and in Billings are among about a third of the sites audited that are flagged for further investigation.

“I do not believe we’ve had any willful misconduct,” Bonde said regarding appointments, adding she thinks the process was so complex that some employees didn’t understand it.

The audit didn’t list wait times for the Billings clinic or say what prompted the follow-up at either facility.

“As the VA continues their review, I am committed to continuing to work closely with the leaders of Montana’s VA system to ensure our veterans receive the care they deserve in a timely manner and to make all necessary reforms, were any inappropriate or substandard practices at Montana VA facilities to come to light,” U.S. Rep. Steve Daines said Monday in a statement.

U.S. Sens. John Tester and John Walsh signed a letter last week along with 19 other senators urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to call on the Department of Justice to immediately investigate evidence of criminal wrongdoing at VA medical facilities nationwide.

On Monday, Walsh called for the president to form an independent commission to review the care veterans are receiving from the VA.

“I am calling for the establishment of an independent, bipartisan commission to review the VA and provide an action plan to Congress for how this nation can fully live up to the promises made to the men and women who sacrificed for our country,” Walsh said in a statement.

Also, beginning this week, Walsh will have staff members available Wednesday afternoons at the Fort Harrison and Billings sites to assist veterans with casework and make sure their concerns are being addressed.

Last week Tester announced legislation and a listening tour to get input from Montana veterans on their VA experiences.

“Today’s report shows that once veterans get in the door at the VA they get good care,” Tester said in a statement Monday. “However, more needs to be done to increase their access.”

VA Montana employs 908 people and maintains a $222 million medical care budget with the main hospital at Fort Harrison near Helena and 12 outpatient clinics around the state.

The system saw 30,270 unique visitors during the last fiscal year with 193,870 outpatient visits.

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