By Rachel La Corte Associated Press
OLYMPIA — New patients seeking a primary care doctor through VA Puget Sound in Seattle faced an average wait time of nearly 59 days, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs internal review released Monday.
The report shows wait times for averaged about 29 days in Spokane and 43 days in Walla Walla, indicating that delays at the state’s three largest VA systems far exceeded the department’s stated 14-day goal.
More than a dozen facilities in Washington state were visited during the two-phase audit process, and six — Spokane, Puget Sound-Seattle, Puget Sound-American Lake, Walla Walla, Portland-Vancouver, Washington, campus and South Sound in Chehalis — were flagged for further review during the first nationwide audit of the VA network following uproar that began with reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center.
A preliminary audit last month found that long patient waits and falsified records were “systemic” throughout the VA medical network, the nation’s largest single health care provider with nearly 9 million veterans and their families as patients.
Washington state Democratic U.S. Senator Patty Murray, a senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the report “paints a serious and disturbing picture of the VA’s system-wide failure to provide timely access to care for our nation’s heroes.”
She said it was especially troubling how many Washington state facilities face further review.
VA Puget Sound spokesman Chad Hutson said administrators were unaware that further reviews were pending until the report was released.
The guidelines stating that veterans should be seen within 14 days have been abandoned as the department has called the target unattainable given existing resources and growing demand.
Established patients received better access to care with wait times averaging less than a week at the state’s largest systems. In Spokane, established patients waited slightly more than a day, on average.
Brian Westfield, the director of the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, said that he was surprised by some of the numbers. He said he believed wait times at his facility were closer to 30 days.
“In the meantime, we are going to put together a training package to reset our expectations and our standards,” he said.
Bret Bowers, a spokesman for the VA Medical Center in Spokane said a written statement the report “reflects the challenges we face” but that “our intention is to provide timely access to the quality care our veterans have earned and deserve.”
Nationally, more than 57,000 patients are still waiting for initial medical appointments after 90 days, and an additional 64,000 who enrolled in the VA health care system in the last decade have never been seen.
In Washington, 777 veterans who enrolled in the over the past 10 years have gone without appointments — 482 in Puget Sound, 232 in Spokane, and 63 in Walla Walla.
The report also detailed wait times for specialized care and mental health services.
New patients seeking specialized care waited an average about 49 days at VA Puget Sound. Those seeking mental health care waited about 38 days.
In Spokane, patients seeking an initial specialist visit waited more than 60 days. Those awaiting first-time mental health care faced delays of 27 days.
In Walla Walla, veterans initiating specialized care faced 51 day waits. Those seeking new mental health services waited about 26 days.