Waits for doctors can vary widely outside the VA

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 13, 2014 at 12:36 pm •  Published: June 13, 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Veterans aren't the only ones who can find it tough to get a quick appointment with a new doctor.

There are wide variations in wait times, depending on where you live and what kind of care you're seeking.

Need routine primary care? The average wait to see a family physician for the first time ranged from 66 days in Boston to just five days in Dallas, according to a survey in 15 large cities by health care consulting firm Merritt Hawkins.

And that's before the new federal health care law opened the way for millions of newly insured people to start looking for a doctor.

"To say it's an easy solution to the VA problem — we'll just have them get care in the community — overestimates the capacity the community has to absorb these folks," said Dr. Yul Ejnes of the American College of Physicians.

VETERAN WAITS MADE HEADLINES

A government audit shows more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting at least three months for their first appointments at Veterans Affairs medical centers and an additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA care over the past decade never got seen by a doctor. The longest waits for an initial primary care appointment ranged from 145 days in Honolulu to 73 days in Richmond, Virginia.

To help, Congress is moving to allow more veterans who encounter delays to seek VA-paid care, temporarily, from a non-VA doctor. (The VA already had allowed some outside care, although veterans have complained that it's difficult to access and includes a series of bureaucratic hurdles that must be cleared.)

OUTSIDE VA, WHAT'S THE WAIT?

There are no national statistics. But Merritt Hawkins' survey, released earlier this year, illustrates there's variation around the country when it comes to choosing a new physician. And the kind of doctor you need makes a difference.

The wait for a first-time appointment with a cardiologist averaged 32 days in the nation's capital but only 11 days in Atlanta.

Got knee pain? Waits for an initial consultation with an orthopedic surgeon averaged 18 days in San Diego and five days in Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Houston.

For a well-woman visit, waits for a first-time OB/GYN appointment ranged from 46 days in Boston to 10 days in Seattle.

Those are averages. The longest reported wait time was a stunning 256 days for a particular Minneapolis dermatologist. You could wait 129 days for a certain Seattle family practice and 132 days for one San Diego cardiologist, the survey found.

But people frustrated by waits for one doctor often can seek another, depending on their insurance and how far they're willing to drive. Sure enough, Merritt Hawkins' survey showed that in multiple cities, there were physicians with appointments available in just one day even for a new patient.

That's not the only way to measure. The Massachusetts Medical Society's annual statewide survey found wait times ebb and flow. The wait for a first-time appointment with an internal medicine specialist was 50 days in 2013, up from 44 days the previous year. In contrast, the wait for a family physician dropped to 39 days, from 45 in 2012, and the wait for a gastroenterologist was 33 days, 11 days shorter than the previous year.

WHY THE WAIT?

Partly, there aren't enough doctors. A graying population that needs more medical care was straining the system even before the new health care law allowed more people to enter the system. With older physicians retiring, too, there aren't enough new ones coming on board to meet growing demand.

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