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VA reviewing patient wait times in region

The Department of Veterans Affairs Northern Indiana Health Care System is in the middle of its regional pack for delays in patient treatment, according to a nationwide audit of VA facilities released Monday.

Mid-May reviews of medical centers in Fort Wayne and Marion, plus four community-based outpatient clinics, found that 49 patients had to wait between 90 and 120 days for appointments and that 29 patients had to wait at least 120 days.

The patient numbers were much larger than those for medical centers in Battle Creek and Saginaw, Michigan, and Danville, Illinois, although much smaller than those for centers in Indianapolis, Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Those medical centers and their outpatient clinics form Veterans Integrated Service Network 11, based in Ann Arbor. Service Network 11 is among 21 regional Veterans Health Administration networks across the country.

The internal patient-access audit found that 78 patients of northern Indiana system waited at least 90 days for physician appointments, compared with 448 for Ann Arbor, 262 for Detroit, 172 for Indianapolis, 33 for Danville, 24 for Saginaw and nine for Battle Creek.

Ann Arbor, Indianapolis and Detroit scheduled far more appointments than did the four other systems in Service Network 11, according to the audit.

Asked to comment about the regional patient-wait times, public affairs officer Michael Brady said in an email, “We still have opportunity for improvement and will continue to seek ways to improve care to our Veterans.”

The VA audit called for further reviews of all Service Network 11 members except for VANIHCS because of indications of “undesired scheduling practices” and because “staff indicated they had received instruction to modify scheduling dates (or similar concerns).”

Nationwide, 19 percent of facilities were flagged for further review.

The audit reported that more than 57,000 military veterans waited at least 90 days for appointments at 731 facilities.

Auditors interviewed 3,772 employees between May 12 and June 3.

“This report reaffirms a culture change at the Department of Veterans Affairs is necessary,” Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said in a statement. “Confirmed audit findings show that Indiana veterans endured unacceptably long wait times with some never receiving an appointment. As I hear from more veterans, I continue to support an independent investigation to make sure we identify and prosecute those responsible for falsifying records and neglecting patient care.”

The VA audit came in the wake of media reports on preventable patient deaths, treatment delays and falsified patient records that led to the recent resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that hundreds of Hoosier veterans have had to wait more than 90 days for primary care,” Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said in a statement. “They need to be contacted and seen as soon as possible.”

Donnelly also said, “We need to give VA medical facilities the tools they need to bring down wait times and improve care, and we need to hold VA officials responsible for any misconduct.

Donnelly and Coats recently sent a letter to VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson requesting an in-person briefing with department leaders on whether wait times were manipulated at Indiana facilities.

The audit does not break out numbers for the Fort Wayne and Marion campuses or regional community-based outpatient clinics – known as CBOCs – in Goshen, South Bend, Peru and Muncie.

Together, they scheduled 30,677 appointments, and 97 percent of patients saw physicians in 30 days or less.

The average appointment wait times for established patients were 2.89 days for primary care, 4.77 days for specialty care and 1.44 days for mental health care.

The wait times for new patients were far longer: 31.73 days for primary care, 48.39 days for specialty care and 34.17 days for mental health care.

Brady said in a phone interview that new-patient appointments tend to be scheduled farther into the future because each lasts about an hour – twice the time for the typical appointment for an established patient.

“We want to make sure we are doing a thorough evaluation” of new patients, he said.

He added: “If a veteran needs to be seen today, we can see him today. We’ve got the emergency room and immediate care clinics, and all our CBOCs are set up to see a veteran that day, too.”