Head of VA disputes McGuire wait-time audit

Head of VA disputes McGuire wait-time audit

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A controversial new audit claims veterans are still facing long wait times for care at McGuire Veterans Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia. The leader of the VA and the hospital dispute the findings.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General conducted the audit in response to ongoing concerns about wait times between April 2016 and January 2017. The report says McGuire and 11 other hospitals in North Carolina under-reported just how long veterans are waiting to see doctors for appointments. Auditors also say these hospitals put incorrect scheduling data into the system.

The audit estimated that 36 percent of appointments for new patients had waits of more than 30 days. The average wait for these patients was 59 days.

The audit also looked at Veterans Choice, the program created to cut down on these long waits. Patients are referred to doctors outside the VA System if their waits for appointments are more than 30 days or if they lived more than 40 miles from a VA Medical Center.

The audit says the average wait time for patients who received care through Veteran's Choice was 84 days.

This is something the On Your Side Investigators documented last November through paraplegic veteran Brian Kearns. He waited more than six months for a shoulder surgery and for someone to look at a sore on his chest. He was referred to Veteran's Choice, but the people running that program never called him back about the dermatology appointment until we reported on the problems.

"They think they've created a program that will help. They didn't. They created a program that's worse," said Kearns in November.

VA Secretary David Shulkin took issue with the findings in the audit - specifically with the way the inspector general calculated wait times. He questioned the methodology, saying the findings did not account for patients who pushed back their own appointments:

Because OIG uses a methodology to calculate wait times that is incongruent with Veterans Health Administration (VHA) policy, I cannot concur with some of the conclusions in this report nor use them for management decisions. I am primarily concerned that OIG used a criterion for determining whether schedulers had appropriately recorded a Veteran's preferred date for their appointment that is not required by our policies. This means the OIG finds our schedulers deficient at doing something that we do not require them to do. It also means the OIG ignored the dates patients told us they wanted to be seen, and selected an earlier date to use for calculating wait times. As a result, the wait times OIG calculates are longer than what VHA reports, simply because the OIG has discounted Veterans' preferred dates for appointment.

McGuire Medical Center agrees with Shulkin's assessment. In a statement, Spokesperson Darlene Edwards wrote: "We are privileged to serve more than 60,000 Veterans in central Virginia and we are committed to ensuring they have access to the care they need, when they need it."

The Inspector General stands behind the audit, and while he acknowledges the concerns, he still says there are issues with how long veterans are waiting.

Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner also called the findings "troubling."

In a statement Kaine wrote:

The findings in the Department of Veterans Affairs IG report on wait times today are completely unacceptable. Though the report does not find intentional misreporting, it does find that actual wait times are drastically longer than what is being reported. The VA's own standard on appointment wait times is not being met, either due to a lack of understanding or a lack of training. The bottom line is  our veterans are not getting the timely care they deserve.

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