LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – As controversy over Veterans Health Administration handling of wait times for veteran medical appointments continues, the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System responds to local veteran concerns and points to new tools that staff say will improve wait times for many vets across the system.
“I drive up through here and I’ve waited over a month to get an appointment.”
In April, discharged Army sergeant John voiced concerns to Fox16 about wait times to see his physician in the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System (CAVHS). He was afraid to use his full name, saying he was afraid retaliation would come in the loss of benefits and his disability status.
“I’m afraid right now. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my 100 percent disability status. But I had to speak out. Not just for me, but for other veterans. We’re waiting 45 days, two months or even longer to get appointments. It’s laughable that they say wait times are getting better,” John told us then.
“After seeing that on the news, I paused and talked to the entire staff whether his concern or not is true. The issue is that he believes it [that he might face retaliation and lose his benefits] and that’s potentially preventing him from reaching out to us to get his care,” said Mark Morgan, Acting Medical Director of CAVHS.
Morgan sat down with us to talk about changes at CAVHS, and reassure veterans that he wants to hear their honest feedback about the services they’re receiving.
“Please exercise that right to give us you’re opinion whether it’s through a survey at check-in or by speaking to a patient advocate. We only get better when we get your feedback,” he said.
Morgan, a veteran himself, has been with CAVHS now for roughly three months. He said he’s made it a priority to do site visits to clinics across the state, and meet with his staff in daily review sessions to look at data regarding wait times to identify issues that might be occurring that result in challenges for veterans seeking care.
According to Morgan, concerns over wait time and appointment manipulation highlighted in a VA Inspector General’s report have placed a renewed emphasis on training, accountability and customer service.
“It has been painful, and you’re correct it has sharpened our focus on what’s important and what our veterans, our customers need,” he said. “And that’s CAVHS looking at all of our roles being customer service-oriented. We have individuals, like our patient advocates, who focus on that full-time. But I believe from top down that we all should be focused on providing great customer service in our roles.”
According to Morgan, new tools like modernized appointment software coming this summer and an updated scheduling guidance from the VA based on accountability reviews could help further address wait time issues.
“When a veteran calls and wants to be seen on Tuesday, we’re looking at a Tuesday afternoon calendar not a bunch of ones and zeroes in a column,” Morgan said. “I really see the archaic scheduling system as being a big contributor to the appointment errors that we were seeing.”
By incorporating an interface that resembles something closer to an actual calendar, instead of a conglomeration of zeroes and ones to indicate appointment openings or lack of availability. That, Morgan said, will eliminate opportunities for errors in appointment management like those that led VA Inspector General Investigators to determine manipulation in the Little Rock system.
“With the new interface, the fields that caused the data errors, some of those fields are completely blocked out,” Morgan said. “I do expect to see some differences in the data – I also expect to see a more transparency, because what’s on the screen is the discussion being had between the scheduler and the veteran or the veteran and his provider.”
Data collected by CAVHS shows that about 95 percent of veterans are being seen within the 30 day guidelines set by the VA. And the average wait time is roughly seven days. While Morgan is pleased with those averages, he admitted there are outliers, hundreds of veterans waiting longer than the 30-day requirement to be seen.
“They [outliers] identify the weaknesses in our system and that’s the danger in looking at averages,” he said. “While we’re doing well, I don’t want to be asleep at the switch. My staff and I take a look at the data daily and ask why are these veterans not being seen as quickly as they might want. My mission in terms of acting director is to address those areas where we don’t have the capacity to meet needs of veterans.”
According to Morgan, his tactic on addressing those areas is making sure the system is leveraging internal opportunities with making appointments appropriately and leveraging external partners like community physicians through the Veteran Choice Program.
The hope, according to Morgan, is to get veterans the quality care and service to veterans that they feel they deserve for the service they’ve provided to their country.
For those veterans experiencing lengthy wait times, Morgan asked they report their experiences by contacting a patient advocate. You can find the numbers for those advocates listed here.