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73-day wait for veterans seeking care at Salt Lake VA, audit finds

By McKenzie Romero | Posted - Jun 10th, 2014 @ 7:52am

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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake's Veterans Affairs Medical Center has the ninth-longest wait in the country for new patients seeking primary care, according to an audit released Monday.

On average, veterans enrolling as new primary care patients had a 73-day wait ahead of them as of May 15, landing the Salt Lake VA in the top 10 for wait times, the audit reported. The Honolulu VA had the longest wait for new primary care patients with 145 days.

Wait time for established primary care patients through the Salt Lake VA is 8.5 days.

The audit comes in the wake of scandalous findings of excessive wait times for care and falsification or manipulation of appointment records in the Phoenix VA hospital, where Salt Lake VA Director Steve Young has been deployed, and other locations.

The revelations prompted the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki May 30 and began a national evaluation of veteran health care.

The Salt Lake-based VA is responsible for clinics over 125,000 miles, one of the largest regions in the country, and covers all but the southeast corner of Utah while including Pocatello and Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Ely and Elko, Nevada.

The Salt Lake hospital is offering extended weekday hours in response to the long list of new enrollees seeking primary care, which grows by about five or six people daily, spokeswoman Jill Atwood said Monday.

"We just don't have the doctors or the slots available," Atwood said. "We've added the extended clinic times on Monday through Thursday and then the Saturday clinics."

The data, while daunting, is honest, she said.

"Our numbers are true. We've never manipulated the system," Atwood said. "You'll notice we're not one of the facilities that needs further investigation because they've found we're doing everything we're supposed to be doing, but we are inundated and we have access issues."

Some of the backup can be attributed to problems recruiting primary care physicians, Atwood said.

"Especially in our small, more remote clinics, if we lose a doctor, that's just devastating to our patient loads," she said.

Veterans in rural areas with long waits are offered travel reimbursement or van service to the Salt Lake or West Valley City clinics, though many choose to simply wait in order to be seen in their own clinic, Atwood said.

The audit released Monday was done in part to determine whether VA medical centers are following scheduling procedure, and Salt Lake passed, Atwood said. Along with the audit's release, the VA eliminated its 14-day scheduling goal, which Atwood called "unattainable."

As of May 15, 29,015 appointments had been scheduled through the Salt Lake VA. Of those, 92 percent of appointments were scheduled in fewer than 30 days, while 8 percent (2,319 appointments) took anywhere from 60 to 120 days to schedule.

The report found that 792 veterans requested appointments as new enrollees in the past 10 years and were never seen.

Every person on the Salt Lake VA's waiting list has been contacted, Atwood says, and patients with a more than 90-day wait for specialty care have been given the option to be treated by community physicians.

New patients requiring specialty care in Utah are looking at a 50-day wait, according to the audit.

Looking at the numbers and amidst ongoing criticism, Atwood agrees that the problem can't be allowed to continue.

"It's not acceptable to us either," she said. "That's why we've got folks coming in on overtime and trying to put a dent in this, because our veterans need to see a doctor."

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