MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The average wait for a new patient to see a primary care doctor is nearly 51 days at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Madison, nearly three times the VA’s own target, data released Monday as part of a wide-ranging audit showed.
The wait for new patients in Madison is the longest for anyone seeking care at Wisconsin’s three major VA medical centers, the nationwide audit of 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics revealed.
The average wait for new patients seeking a primary care doctor at the facility in Milwaukee was just short of 24 days, while it was 17 days for the medical center in Tomah. Nationwide, the longest average wait for new patients seeking primary care was about 145 days at a facility in Honolulu. The longest average wait for new patients seeking specialty care was about 145 days at a clinic in Harlingen, Texas.
The VA has a 14-day target for wait times, but it has said that was “not attainable” given growing demand for VA services and poor planning.
A spokesman for the Madison hospital declined immediate comment.
Scott Farley, spokesman for the Tomah VA Medical Center, said he was pleased with its 17-day waiting period for new patients, but a lack of providers contributed to waiting periods more than doubling there for specialty care.
“There’s only so many appointments available in a day, so if we don’t have enough providers that’s what happens,” Farley said.
In Wisconsin, the average wait time to see a specialist was nearly 50 days in Milwaukee, 41 in Madison and nearly 39 in Tomah. The wait for mental health services was nearly 43 days in Tomah, almost 34 days in Milwaukee and 26 days in Madison.
Gary Kunich, spokesman for Milwaukee VA Medical Center, said officials there were reviewing results of the audit and welcomed “any opportunity to improve our system.”
Republican and Democratic members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation expressed concerns.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan believes the audit’s findings are “deeply troubling,” said his spokesman, Kevin Seifert.
“We have a responsibility to hold the VA accountable,” Seifert said in an email.
Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat representing western Wisconsin, said the audit indicates problems with access, not quality of care.
“The VA is wrestling with personnel shortages, similar to what we are seeing with private health care providers,” Kind said.
The audit is the first nationwide look at the VA network in the uproar that began with reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center.
The audit, based on a snapshot of data taken May 15, showed that most patients – 98 percent in Madison and Tomah and 96 percent in Milwaukee – got scheduled for appointments within 30 days. The nationwide average was 96 percent. In Wisconsin, 104,331 veterans out of 107,628 who sought appointments were able to schedule an appointment within 30 days.
However, 3,297 patients were not scheduled within 30 days and 525 of them had been waiting more than three months, the audit showed.
Nationwide, 57,000 veterans have been waiting more than three months for appointments while an additional 64,000 had never seen a VA doctor over the past 10 years. In Wisconsin, 405 people who enrolled for VA health care in the state over the past decade have never been seen by a doctor.
Overall, the audit indicates that accessing care is difficult for newcomers, but that established patients within the VA generally had little trouble getting in to see a primary care doctor in a timely manner.
The audit is the third in a series of reports in the past month into long wait times and falsified records at VA facilities nationwide. The controversy forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the audit showed “systemic problems” that demand immediate action.