Military veterans The Government Accountability Office has found that veterans continue to wait several weeks prolonged periods for medical care, according to a new watchdog report, contradicting assertions from top Veterans Affairs officials that most patients see a doctor within six days are waiting less than a week to see a doctor.
Released Monday, the A Government Accountability Office's review of appointment wait times for patients veterans new to VA health care found that veterans wait three to eight weeks for medical appointments. Others at the VA, and about a sixth could not see a primary care doctor at all because VA medical center staff did not handle their appointments correctly, the report GAO report says according to a GAO report released on Monday. [[[I STRIPPED THE ONE-SIXTH REF BECAUSE THERE WASN'T A COMPARABLE STAT FOR THE 3- TO 8-WEEKS REF. DO YOU HAVE THAT DATA? IT'D BE GOOD ADD A SENTENCE STATING CLEARLY HOW MANY CASES GAO REVIEWED AND HOW MANY OF THOSE FELL INTO THESE TWO CATEGORIES]]]
On Monday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said 97 percent of VA appointments at VA are completed within 30 days, with the average wait time from three to six days.
The discrepancy between the data is the result of the way GAO and VA measure wait times differently, which is why there's a discrepancy: According to GAO health care issues director Debra Draper, VA starts counting from the day a VA scheduler returns a veteran's call or request for an appointment, according to GAO health care issues director Debra Draper.
Draper said VA should count from the day a veteran calls to request an appointment.
The difference is crucial, Draper said, to understanding whether appointment wait times actually are in fact decreasing at the department.
"Since 2000, and in particular, over the past five years, we have consistently reported on the VA's failure to ensure veterans timely access to health care," Draper told House Veterans Affairs Committee members on Tuesday.
The VA was rocked by scandal in 2014 when an investigation revealed that some VA hospitals maintained appointment schedules outside the official system, and lengthy delays in care contributed to some veterans' deaths.
Draper said the same issues that led to the VA scandal — ongoing schedule errors, including incorrectly revising dates when rescheduling appointments — continue to be a problem for the department.
"We think that from the time the veteran requests care and they actually receive care, this should be counted ... this is going to make VA a better system," she said.
In his 14th full committee hearing since 2011 to discuss patient access and wait times, House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., appeared to be annoyed expressed annoyance that by VA's continues to uses a different measurement metrics than what he believes makes more sense — counting from the day a veteran first contacts VA for care. They're VA's continued adherence to a system that is prone "to manipulation," is troubling, he said added.
"The obvious result of VA reporting only a portion of veterans' actual wait times is artificially low results. I still do not understand a culture that persists in presenting inaccurate data to this committee, or more important, to the veterans of this country," Miller said.
VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin told Miller and committee members that since taking office last year, his top priority has been to fix access issues at VA and reduce continue to work on reducing wait times.
To accomplish this, he told the committee, he needed to install new leadership at the Veterans Health Administration and emphasize the VA's commitment to access among all employees.
All VHA employees now have a set of foundational principles called "MyVA Access Declaration," to guide them to providing timely care to former service members, according to Shulkin.
"A year from now we will not be having this discussion," on wait times, Shulkin said.
Draper said the GAO has begun meeting with VA officials to help the department VA develop action plans with "metrics we can both agree to" — a step that will help measure whether progress is being made.
Lawmakers said Tuesday that the prolonged wait times at VA are an ongoing issue for constituents who must wait months for health care.
"You paint too rosy a picture," Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., told Shulkin. "The system is broken. The people in my district are frustrated and angry."
"The GAO is continuing to find fault in the way you collect data and how you are reporting it. You can understand why we are still skeptical that you are touting the number that 96 percent of all patients are seen before this arbitrary goal of 30 days," said Rep. Raul Ruiz, a medical doctor and California Democrat.
The House and Senate are currently working on veterans omnibus legislation that will address issues with the Veterans Choice program, including access to care, and accountability for VA employees who are found to be guilty of negligence or malfeasance in their duties.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com