Wait times for veterans seeking medical appointments at the VA have remained stubbornly stagnant in the past five months, with the number of patients who have waited more than a month to see a doctor topping 505,000, according to newly released data.
Of the nearly 6.7 million medical appointments at Veterans Affairs Department facilities nationwide, 92 percent — roughly the same percentage for the past year — were scheduled within a 30-day standard set by Congress in 2014.
But the number of veterans who had to wait a month or more was up 23,000 from April, including the 297,013 veterans who have waited one to two months for an appointment.
Although VA has implemented the Veterans Choice program, which allows veterans to see a private physician if they can't get an appointment at VA in fewer than 30 days, some clinics and medical centers still struggle to provide patients with timely medical care, the data released Wednesday indicate.
Some hospitals and clinics have no waits. But at other facilities, veterans can wait months. According to the data, those seeking primary care at Evansville VA Health Care Center, Illinois, wait an average 34.6 days. Patients at the Aberdeen, South Dakota, VA clinic wait an average 38.4 days for specialty care, and those at the Fort Benning VA Clinic, Georgia, wait more than 50 days for mental health services.
The average wait time across the system as of May 15 was 6.89 days for primary care, 10.15 days for specialty care and 4.4 days for mental health appointments, according to the report.
The figures are not all that much different from October 2014, when VA first started publishing wait time assessments. According to VA, more than 93 percent of appointments then met the 30-day standard and the average wait times for appointments were 6.4 days for primary care, 7.2 days for specialty care and 4.1 for mental health care.
VA officials have said that given more veterans are making appointments at VA than then — 5.9 million versus 6.7 million — wait time trends are improving.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald said tin May hat wait times are not a valid measure of health care services at VA and VA medical centers have a higher than 90 percent patient satisfaction rate, according to surveys taken at kiosks located in the medical centers.
He told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that wait time measures can create problems, such as the scandal that enveloped the VA in 2014 when employees maintained alternate appointment calendars to dodge the official system that monitors wait times.
VA releases its wait time data roughly every two weeks, providing information for every medical center and clinic in its system.
Under the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, veterans who face waits of more than 30 days can see a private physician under the Veterans Choice program. But the Choice initiative has come under fire for mismanagement that has prevented patients getting appointments and kept doctors from receiving payment for their services.
VA has asked Congress for legislation that would allow the department to consolidate several community care programs under Choice. Several veterans bills now under consideration by the House and Senate contain language that would streamline the program but not give VA the flexibility it seeks to eliminate several outside care programs.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is pressing his colleagues to support legislation that would expand the Veterans Choice program to all former troops enrolled in VA health care.
That measure is opposed by the VA and several veterans service organizations who believe it would undermine VA's ability to provide direct medical care, including specialty care for service-connected conditions, to veterans.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com