RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Actual delays in delivering medical care to military veterans remain far worse at Veterans Affairs facilities in North Carolina and Virginia than internal records showed, according to a new report by government inspectors.
The report released this week by the Veterans Affairs Department's inspector general showed that 90 percent of the vets eligible to see private doctors because of long VA delays weren't getting the help they were due.
Inspectors estimated that more than one-third of new patient appointments had wait times of longer than 30 days. In comparison, VA records showed only about 10 percent of those appointments had delays that long.
In three out of four of the estimated 20,600 medical appointments with wait times greater than 30 days, VA staff entered incorrect information "that made it appear as though the wait time was 30 days or less," the report said.
"It is absolutely unacceptable that the scheduling system does not provide accurate information about wait times," U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said in a statement Friday. New VA Secretary David Shulkin should "use the power that Congress has given him to hold employees accountable and get the results that our veterans demand."
Shulkin, a physician who previously served as VA's top health official under the Obama administration, responded on behalf of the agency that inspectors came to conclusions using yardsticks that are different from VA policies.
While promising improvements by July, Shulkin said VA appointment schedulers appropriately recorded set dates for treatment that vets said they wanted.
Inspectors "ignored the dates patients told us they wanted to be seen, and selected an earlier date to use for calculating wait times," Shulkin wrote. Veterans Health Administration "believes it is very important to respect Veterans preferences for when they want to be seen. We want patients to be seen today if they want care today, and to be seen next week if they want care next week."
In previous years, when VA assigned medical appointments without asking first, the visits would frequently be canceled or skipped because patients had other plans, Shulkin wrote.
Inspectors said their 10-month investigation ending in January involved VA medical facilities in Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Fayetteville, Greenville, Kernersville, Salisbury and Wilmington in North Carolina. The 10 months ending in January also included Virginia VA facilities in Hampton, Richmond and Salem.
VA wait times erupted into a national scandal in 2014 as veterans languished without timely care. VA inspectors said that since August 2015, they have found problems at medical facilities in Colorado Springs, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, St. Louis, and Tampa with the reliability of wait-time records, scheduling practices and access to private doctors.
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