WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs wants its medical centers to compete over patients, and they're launching a new online tool to make comparison shopping for health care easier.
The new "access to care" site, launched Wednesday but expected to be refined significantly over the next few weeks, will allow veterans to see how regional VA health centers stack up against each other on wait times, available services and customer satisfaction.
Poonam Alaigh, acting under secretary for health at the department, said the goal is to both increase transparency over the state of VA health services and provide veterans a way to better customize their own care.
Would-be patients willing to travel significant distances can find regional offices with shorter average wait times for primary and specialty care than nearby facilities. Individuals in metro areas can choose between sites based on customer response ratings.
"There's competition now," she said. "They're going to start losing patients if they don't start watching the patient experience piece."
The site is the latest step in a three-year response to the 2014 VA wait-times scandal that forced the resignation of several senior department officials, including then VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Hospital administrators were found to have manipulated wait-time data to better meet department standards, and in some cases gain bonuses for facility improvements.
Alaigh dismissed concerns about the new public comparison site creating similar incentives for dishonesty, saying the focus is on accountability and public awareness. And she said unrelated to the site, VA has implemented new data-monitoring algorithms to detect similar manipulation in the future.
But she acknowledged the site will highlight "the good and bad" of current facility performance.
For example, on the site now, visitors can track wait times for new patient primary care appointments for every VA facility in the greater Phoenix area, the center of the 2014 scandal. For the VA clinic in nearby Anthem, Arizona, the average wait is 11 days. For the clinic in Casa Grande south of the city, it’s 56 days.
"I want to use this to help build accountability," she said. "I don’t want this to be a punitive thing. It also has to be a tool for us to redirect resources to needed areas."
The site also includes comparisons of standardized health data to other regional, non-VA hospitals, although only a small number of VA sites are currently listed. Alaigh said more will be added in coming weeks.
So will a feedback button for veterans to ask questions about facility offerings and better contact information to help veterans contact medical centers. Alaigh called the site "rushed" and "far from perfect" but said officials wanted to get the available data in veterans hands as quickly as possible.
VA officials for years have promised both better access to medical treatments at department clinics and better customer service throughout the agency, but have received mixed reviews on the work so far from veterans groups and lawmakers.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.