New patients at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center waited an average of 44 days for a primary care appointment, according to an audit released Monday from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department.
Meanwhile, established patients had an average wait time of just over two days for primary care appointments.
These were among the findings released in an audit that the Veterans Affairs Department released Monday, outlining not only wait times and appointment delays but also how the administration will begin to roll out changes in the coming days to a stressed health system.
Wait-time figures for the Oklahoma City and Muskogee’s Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center Home were generally better than dozens of VA facilities in other parts of the U.S. where there were longer wait times for new and established patients, but officials said they are still working to improve veterans’ access to care.
Stacy Rine, spokeswoman at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, said hospital officials had received the audit data at the same time as media and will speak about the findings at a news conference Tuesday.
Nita McClellan, spokeswoman at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center, said the hospital leadership was not surprised by the findings in the audit.
The average wait time for a new patient seeking a primary care appointment at the Muskogee VA was about 31 days, the audit found.
“We expected these numbers,” McClellan said. “We watch them every day.”
The average wait time for new patients seeking specialty care at the Oklahoma City VA was 48 days.
Established patients waited, on average, five days for an appointment in Oklahoma City and two days in Muskogee.
For mental health appointments, new patients waited an average of 44 days in Oklahoma City and 31 days in Muskogee. Established patients waited about two days at both facilities.
Of the 22,595 appointments scheduled at the Muskogee VA medical center, 95 percent — or 22,079 appointments — were scheduled in 30 days or less, according to the audit.
At the Oklahoma City VA, 95 percent of 37,270 appointments were scheduled in 30 days or less.
McClellan said the difference in the findings between the Oklahoma City VA and the Muskogee VA relates to the types of care available at the two facilities.
“We have less services than Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, and they have specialties that we do not offer,” she said. “OKC is also a referral hospital, so other VAs within (our network) can refer their patients to them if they can provide a service that we cannot.”
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said in a statement that he was concerned about not only the overall veteran health care system but also about federal legislation that does not include funding an expansion of a VA medical clinic in Tulsa.
“While the wait times at our Oklahoma VA facilities are better than the inexcusably poor national average, we risk these wait times worsening if the Tulsa VA clinic isn’t given the opportunity to expand,” Inhofe said in the statement.
“The clinic is already at max capacity, and our nation will see an influx of veterans as our men and women in uniform return home from Afghanistan as well as our current veterans continue to age and the demand increases for specialty services. Currently, the Tulsa VA clinic is at risk of shutting down in 2020, which would then overburden the Muskogee VA clinic. This is more than just about wait lists. We must work to provide our veterans with all the options we can to have access to quality care.”
U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, whose district includes Muskogee, said, “Without question, the national average for wait times at VA care facilities continue to be unacceptable. But, having worked with the Muskogee VA hospital, I know they are doing the best they can with resources they have. Improvements can still be made of course, but Muskogee is far and beyond many other facilities. Improving access to care for local veterans—such as bringing a VA clinic to Idabel in Southeastern Oklahoma—has been an issue my team and I have been working on extensively, and we’ll continue to do so. I hope these new facts serve as a call for real action, not continued lip service.”
Oklahoma is a part of a veterans service network that includes all of Oklahoma, as well as Arkansas and Louisiana and pieces of Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri and Texas.
As a result of the audit findings, nine locations in the same service network were selected as requiring further investigation, including facilities in New Orleans, Houston and Hot Springs, Ark. No location in Oklahoma was selected as requiring further review, according to the audit’s summary.
The Veterans Health Administration “has accelerated care for veterans currently waiting for health care services,” and if capacity exists, will provide veterans who don’t have an appointment or have been waiting for services for more than 30 days with an option of rescheduling, keeping their scheduled appointment or being referred to a non-VA provider in their community, according to the summary.
•A complicated scheduling process resulted in confusion among clerks and front-line supervisors in a number of locations.
•A 14 day wait-time performance target for new appointments was not only inconsistently deployed throughout the health care system but was not attainable given growing demand for services and lack of planning for resource requirements.
•Overall, 13 percent of scheduling staff interviewed indicated they received instruction to enter a date different than what the veteran had requested in the appointment scheduling system.
•8 percent of scheduling staff indicated they used alternatives to the official Electronic Wait List. In some cases, pressures were placed on schedulers to utilize unofficial lists or engage in inappropriate practices in order to make waiting times appear more favorable.
“Such practices are widespread enough to require VA to re-examine its entire performance management system and, in particular, whether current measures and targets for access are realistic or sufficient,” the audit reads.
Chris Casteel, Capitol Bureau; The Associated Press