- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - The VA medical system in North Dakota has managed to keep appointments for most military veterans on a timely schedule, despite the challenge of recruiting doctors to the mostly rural state.

An Associated Press analysis of wait times at VA facilities shows that North Dakota is doing better than the national average at meeting the health system’s timeliness goal of seeing patients within 30 days. Of the system’s main hospital in Fargo and five outpatient clinics that reported patient wait times from September through February, none had more than 2.5 percent of scheduled appointments delayed by more than 30 days.

The AP examined waiting times at 940 VA hospitals and clinics to help measure progress since a scandal over delays and attempts to cover them up led to the resignation of the VA secretary in May and prompted lawmakers to spend more money on health care for vets.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how things have changed because the VA introduced a new method for measuring wait times at the end of the summer, but the trend is clear: the number of patients facing long waits at VA facilities has not dropped at all.

Many of the VA hospitals and clinics struggling the greatest number of waits are clustered in the southeast U.S.

Fargo Medical Center Director Lavonne Liversage said that while the hospital is always recruiting primary-care providers, it has become more efficient in the last year and is cutting down on its rate of no-shows by reminding veterans about appointments, “to their annoyance at times.”

“We have seen a steady improvement, certainly since November,” Liversage said. “But even with that, Fargo never really had the wait times that were experienced elsewhere in the country.”

The Fargo VA health care system oversees eight outpatient clinics in North Dakota and two in Minnesota. Wait times for three of the North Dakota clinics - in Dickinson, Jamestown and the newest facility in Devils Lake - were not recorded but should be in the future, Liversage said.

“The VA central office has not flipped the switch or whatever it is they need to do,” she said.

The data showed that of 76,482 appointments in Fargo from September, 1,560 involved waits of at least 31 days, including 186 in which the waits were from 61 to 90 days and 29 in which the waits were longer than 90 days.

The percentage of appointments delayed by at least 31 days was recorded at 2.5 percent in Minot, 2 percent in Fargo, 1.9 percent in Bismarck and 0.4 percent in Grand Forks. No delays were reported in Grafton or Williston.

“We would love to have same day access, but that is not a realistic goal,” Liversage said. “At the VA we learned the hard way that the 14-day goal was not realistic.”

Liversage said the VA’s new “Choice” program, which gives more vets the option of getting care outside the system, has not been a factor because few vets have in North Dakota have signed up for it.

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