White House official tours Atlanta VA

New audit shows veterans waiting longer

Veterans waiting

A new report from the VA shows that more vets at the Atlanta VA are waiting more than 30 days for an appointment:

Atlanta VA: 13,286 patients (11.33 percent)

National VA totals: 621,985 patients (10.05 percent)

On June 9, the VA reported lower figures for vets waiting longer than 30 days for an appointment:

Atlanta VA: 5,566 patients (5 percent)

National VA totals: 242,059 patients (4.03 percent)

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

A senior White House official made a pointed visit to Atlanta’s struggling veterans hospital Friday, on the heels of a new audit showing thousands more veterans are waiting more than a month for appointments within the local health care system.

Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, the Obama aide charged with reviewing problems across the VA, met with leaders at both the hospital and regional benefits office near Decatur. He also met with veterans groups and congressional staffers from Georgia.

“We wanted to get out and see as many facilities as we can,” said Nabors, who walked briskly into the facility without stopping to take questions from reporters.

The Atlanta VA hospital is one of five facilities in Georgia flagged for investigation following an audit that identified long wait times and possible records tampering at facilities across the country. The audit didn’t say whether there was any evidence of record tampering at any of the Georgia facilities, including Savannah, Dublin, Augusta and Smyrna/Austell, which are part of the investigation at 112 facilities nationwide.

Nabors has been visiting VA hospitals that were flagged in the investigation. Last month, he toured the hospital in Phoenix where administrators have been accused of concealing long wait times as veterans died waiting to get treatment.

Atlanta is among the busiest facilities in the country. The audit released Thursday found that 13,286 patients, or about 11.3 percent, are waiting more than 30 days for appointments. That’s significantly higher than what the VA reported earlier this month when it said only 5 percent of patients were waiting more than 30 days. The latest audit also showed higher numbers of patients waiting more than a month at VA hospitals across the country.

For new patients, Atlanta has been among the worst facilities in the country for wait times. New patients on pending waiting lists to enter the Atlanta system for primary care are facing an average of 66 days to be seen. Specialty care patients are facing 54 days, and mental health patients are facing 23 day waits.

Thursday’s audit, however, found the problem for new patients may not be that bad. A look back at wait times for new patients in April found the average wait for primary care was 44 days, specialty care 27 days and mental health seven days.

Atlanta VA spokesman Greg Kendall said the number of new patients on the wait list could be lower than the data suggests in part because it doesn’t account for veterans on the wait list who schedule appointments in person or through the VA’s telephone advice program. He said the Atlanta call center is working with a center in Kansas to verify new patients’ status and get them scheduled for appointments as quickly as possible. Nationally, the VA has contacted 70,000 veterans in an attempt to get them off of wait lists.

The “data reflects unacceptable wait times, which the facility is aggressively working to address,” Kendall said.

Nabors apparently did not downplay the seriousness of the crisis facing the VA in his meeting with veterans groups and congressional staffers from Georgia. Those who attended said it was a frank discussion and Nabors reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to honor veterans and ensure they receive the benefits they’ve earned.

He signaled that the administration was looking at problems across the system, not just scheduling. He reportedly said the administration was interested in addressing the systemic issues at the VA that will create long-term solutions, not just quick Band-Aid fixes.

“I think it was an earnest good first step on the part of the administration to come down to the Atlanta facility, but much work still needs to be done,” said Chandra Harris, a congressional district director who attended the meeting on behalf Congressman David Scott, D-Atlanta.

Randy Goodman, a senior vice commander with the American Legion in Georgia, said his group was at the meeting and called it “very positive.” While most veterans are satisfied with the care they receive at the VA, he said, the facility needs more doctors to help keep up with the growth in the Atlanta area and ease wait times.

“We want the issues resolved,” said Goodman. “We can’t kick the resolution down the road.”

After touring the hospital, Nabors visited the VA’s regional benefits office across from the street. That facility has also faced long wait lists for benefits approval and disability claims. The AJC reported on the problem last fall and it remains one of the biggest complaints local veterans have about the VA.

Scott’s office has more than 350 open cases for veterans awaiting decisions.

“The waiting times are atrocious,” Harris said. “The backlogs are horrible.”