- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - South Bend’s Veterans Affairs clinic is among 50 VA hospitals and clinics around the nation with the highest percentage of appointments that took 31 days or longer to complete, according to government data reviewed by The Associated Press.

The AP’s analysis of wait times for appointments completed between September and February for 940 U.S. outpatient clinics and hospitals shows the South Bend VA Clinic had the nation’s 45th-highest rate of long waits. About 7 percent of its appointments failed to meet the VA’s goal for seeing patients within 30 days - well above the national average of 2.8 percent.

Statewide, more than 10,000 medical appointments out of roughly 467,000 completed during the six-month period at the 18 Indiana VA clinics and hospitals the AP reviewed failed to meet the federal timeliness goal, about 2.28 percent. That figure doesn’t include cancellations, patient no-shows, or instances where the veteran gave up and sought care elsewhere.

The AP examined how veterans’ medical care may have improved since last year’s scandal over delayed care led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Congress responded in August by giving the VA an additional $16.3 billion to hire doctors, open more clinics and allow more vets to get care from private-sector doctors.

The data shows all of Indiana’s VA hospitals and most of its clinics are relatively prompt at seeing patients compared with the national average, but many veterans seeking treatment at four clinics - South Bend, Crown Point, Peru and Evansville - saw longer delays for care than the national average.

Rich Mrozinski, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran from LaPorte, believes the South Bend clinic is too small to handle the volume of veterans who use its services and says a larger site is needed soon. The clinic serves about 8,800 veterans annually.

“The system is broke because there are too many veterans trying to get into that small area and they just cannot handle the volume,” said Mrozinski, who chairs the national legislative committee of Indiana’s chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We’ve got so many young soldiers coming home now with so many issues, and the problem’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

The South Bend clinic saw about 900 appointments that took more than 30 days to complete during the six-month period examined. Its percentage of service delays longer than a month grew from 2.6 percent in September to about 10 percent in December before beginning to decline, falling to 6.8 percent in February.

Teresa Calhoun, a spokeswoman for the VA’s Northern Indiana Health Care System, attributed the clinic’s delays to “staffing challenges” that began six months ago. But she said the additional federal funding provided by August’s Congressional action has allowed the clinic’s managers “to aggressively pursue additional hiring to meet veteran needs.”

“We are aggressively monitoring veteran access and strive to provide timely care for all veterans,” Calhoun said in a statement.

She also said the VA is in the final stages of securing a larger site in St. Joseph County for the clinic, and construction for that space is tentatively expected to be completed in fall 2017.

The Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis is the state’s largest VA medical center, treating about 65,000 veterans last fiscal year. Of its 19,700 appointments over the six-month period, about 4,500 - or 2.3 percent - that involved a wait of more than 30 days.

Spokeswoman Julie Webb said funding from August’s congressional act has allowed the center to hire more than 50 doctors and support staff, boosting its medical staff of about 2,600 workers. She said the hospital hopes to hire about 40 more staffers in the months ahead thanks to the federal funding.

“That’s definitely helped us hire additional providers which are going to help us maintain timely access for our veterans. We have the noblest mission, which is to care for our nation’s veterans,” she said.

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