- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - The wait time for new patients seeking a primary care doctor at the VA Center in Richmond, Virginia, is more than 72 days, one of the 10 longest wait times in the country, according to an audit Monday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

That wait time was virtually tied for ninth worst with the VA Facility in Salt Lake City; both were just a tick below 73 days.

Meanwhile, the wait time at the Hampton, Virginia, VA was eighth worst for specialist care, at 68 days, and ninth worst for mental health care, at 54 days, Monday’s audit shows.

Neither VA facility responded to requests for comment Monday.

In a message posted on the Hampton VA Medical Center Friday, director Michael H. Dunfee said that his facility has increased staffing by 26 new mental health clinicians since 2013, and is in the process of hiring an additional 18 mental health clinicians this year. He also said that improving specialty care access has been a focal point for the medical center, “and we still have more work to do.”

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in an email, “We’ve had a series of briefings on the situation in Hampton, and we’re also working with VA officials in Richmond to try to get our arms around what’s occurred there.”

In a statement, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Monday’s audit is more evidence that systemic problems at the VA must be addressed immediately.

“Congress must take swift action, which is why I have co-sponsored legislation to ensure veterans receive prompt, high-quality care, and support bipartisan efforts to allow patients to see private doctors outside the VA system if they experience long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.”

VA guidelines that have since been abandoned said veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. The department now says meeting that target was unattainable given existing resources and growing demand. Monday’s audit by the VA called the 2011 decision by senior VA officials to set it, and then basing bonuses on meeting the target, an “organizational leadership failure.”

Besides Richmond, other VA facilities in Virginia also are exceeding that goal. In Hampton, the average wait time for primary care is just under 58 days. In Salem, the average wait is 34 1/2 days.

The numbers released Monday found that nationwide, more than 57,000 patients are still waiting for initial medical appointments at VA hospitals and clinics 90 days or more after requesting them. The audit includes interviews with more than 3,772 employees nationwide between May 12 and June 3.

The massive bureaucracy at the VA has come under intense scrutiny following allegations that 40 patients died while awaiting care at a Phoenix hospital where employees kept a secret waiting list to cover up delays. That scandal led to the resignation last month of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.


Follow Fred Frommer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ffrommer

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