- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming veterans are experiencing fewer long delays for medical appointments at federal hospitals and clinics around the state as compared to the national average.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health system’s standards call for veterans to be seen within 30 days for non-emergency appointments.

A national review of VA records by The Associated Press found that 2.8 percent of appointments nationwide from Aug. 1 through February faced waiting times of 31 days or longer.

In Wyoming, however, the records show that only 1.9 percent of appointments were subject to such delays. The figures don’t include cancellations or cases in which patients didn’t show up.

“Most Wyoming veterans are very happy with their VA health care,” said Larry Barttelbort, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission.

A scandal over the issue of waiting times at VA facilities led to the ouster last year of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. An investigation by the department’s office of inspector general found that workers at some hospitals had falsified waiting lists, resulting in chronic delays.

Stung into action, Congress last year passed a law injecting $16 billion into overhauling the health care system for veterans.

It’s 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 it’s clear that significant problems remain in some areas. Wyoming, however, has largely eluded such woes.

The wait times at the Sheridan VA health care system, for example, were far below the national average over the last six months. Only 0.37 percent of appointments took longer than 30 days at the hospital in Sheridan while at the Powell VA Clinic, only 0.17 percent took longer than 30 days.

Jackie VanMark is public affairs specialist for the Sheridan VA health care system.

“First and foremost, this is Wyoming, and we are a small and tight-knit community. We know each other, so that’s helpful,” VanMark said.

The Sheridan VA Health Care System covers three-quarters of the state and serves about 13,000 of the roughly 52,000 veterans in the state who receive care through the VA, VanMark said. In addition to the medical center in Sheridan, the system includes six full clinics around the state.

VanMark said the Sheridan system provides a substantial portion of mental health treatment through video networks so veterans don’t have to travel.

The Cheyenne VA’s service area includes portions of northern Colorado and western Nebraska. The main Cheyenne VA hospital saw 2.25 percent of its appointments from September through February take longer than 30 days.

Sam House, public affairs officer for the VA in Cheyenne, said about 10 percent of its roughly 21,000 veterans served by the Cheyenne VA system are seeking outside care through the new Choice program Congress created last year. The system allows veterans to elect to receive medical care at non-VA facilities if they live at least 40 miles away and meet other criteria.

House said the hospital holds periodic meetings where medical staff and administrators look through all pending veterans’ medical charges to make sure they’re being treated as fast as possible.

Bill Nation, a World War II Navy veteran and former mayor of Cheyenne, said he’s active in veterans’ organizations.

“They’re doing an excellent job, and they have been ignored,” Nation said of Wyoming VA workers. “And that seems to be such a tragedy to think that they work that hard and go home and they still have this onus on them about the VA and the problems.”

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