- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Patients seeking care through the Dorn Veterans Administration Medical Center in Columbia are waiting an average of 77 days for their first appointment with a primary care doctor - more than five times longer than the department’s goal - according to federal data released Monday.

The average wait time for new patients at South Carolina’s other VA hospital in Charleston averaged about 45 days, according to the report from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The audit is the first nationwide look at the VA network in the uproar that began with reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center. The review of 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics found the agency’s complicated appointment process created confusion among scheduling clerks and supervisors, according to the department.

Auditors found long wait times across the country for patients seeking their first appointments with both primary care doctors and specialists.

VA guidelines say veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. The department now says that meeting that target was unattainable given existing resources and growing demand.

The 77-day average wait time at Dorn was the sixth-highest in the country, according to the information released Monday. A VA facility in Honolulu, Hawaii, had the country’s longest wait time, at 145 days.

Nationally, more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for medical appointments, according to the audit. An additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA health care over the past decade have never been seen by a doctor, according to the audit.

At Dorn, more than 900 patients have been waiting 90 days or longer for medical appointments, the audit showed. In Charleston, more than 100 patients posted appointment wait times of 90 days of more.

The audit is the third in a series of reports in the past month into long wait times and falsified records at VA facilities nationwide. The controversy forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30. Shinseki took the blame for what he decried as a “lack of integrity” in the sprawling system providing health care to the nation’s military veterans.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the audit showed “systemic problems” that demand immediate action. Asked about the audit’s results, several members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation on Monday said improvements were needed to meet veterans’ health care needs.

U.S. Senator Tim Scott released a statement saying: “Last week, I engaged in a statewide listening tour to hear veterans’ firsthand concerns about the VA and the services it is supposed to provide. After hearing many troubling stories from veterans and their families throughout the state and seeing initial reports about the audit data released today, I remain concerned South Carolina’s veterans may not be getting the best possible care.”


Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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