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Audit Details Appointment Delays For New Hampshire Vets

Veterans seeking an appointment at the VA Medical Center in Manchester were able to see a doctor in 30 days or less 98 percent of the time,  according to a nationwide audit released today by Department of Veterans Affairs.

But as many as 118 Granite State veterans waited 90 days or more for their first appointment, and 98 former troops who enrolled for treatment in the last decade have yet to see a physician in the VA network.

The system-wide review of scheduling practices at 731 VA health care centers comes less than two weeks after an inspector general's report confirmed appointment schedulers in Phoenix had falsified data to conceal long delays in veterans' treatment. The report led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week.

According to the audit released today, VA inspectors visited Manchester and the VA Medical Center in White River Junction in mid-May.

They found that newly enrolled patients in Manchester waited almost 20 days on average to see a primary care physician - six days longer than the VA's 14-day scheduling goal. New patients seeking mental health treatment had to wait an average of  23 days for an initial appointment and more than 38 days before they could meet with a specialist.

At the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., appointments were scheduled in 30 days or less 98 percent of the time. Newly enrolled veterans waited 30 days for a primary care appointment and more than 28 days for mental health care.

While only two veterans who newly enrolled for care at White River Junction waited more than 90 days for an appointment, as many as 116 vets who enrolled in the last decade have yet to see a physician.

Both the Manchester and White River Junction facilities performed slightly better than the national average of 96 percent of appointments scheduled within 30 days.

Nationwide, more than 57,000 veterans waited more than 90 days for an appointment and nearly 64,000 have yet to see a VA physician.  The audit put some of the blame for the delays on a complicated scheduling protocol, as well as on the growing demand for health care by veterans.

The VA said its goal of providing an appointment within 14 days, which is being eliminated, was "unattainable" given staffing levels, putting pressure on supervisors to bend the rules in order to meet performance measures.

The VA announced 16 actions it will take in response to the audit, including suspending bonuses for senior executives, developing new patient-satisfaction measures and making sure some 50,000 veterans who are on waiting lists around the country see a doctor.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said the audit substantiates evidence of systemic problems at the VA that are "very troubling and require immediate action."

In a statement, Shaheen said, "Our veterans deserve timely and accessible care and while the VA is taking steps forward, such as canceling bonuses like I have called for, the VA still has a long way to go. I will continue to work across the aisle to address the management crisis at the VA and implement necessary reforms, including mandating regular audits, in order to deliver on the promise we’ve made to our veterans.”

Daniel S. Yoder, Adjutant of the Department of New Hampshire American Legion, said he has never received complaints about long delays in treatment at the Manchester VA Medical Center. The bigger problem, he said, is the backlog of veterans who are waiting to be approved for benefits.

"Always the complaint is accessibility," said Yoder. "Just getting into the system in the first place is a tough deal."