LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A new government watchdog report says the VA appears to continue having scheduling errors when it comes to making veterans’ appointments, and that wait-time data may be unreliable because of how individual centers may be implementing scheduling policies.
“This one was canceled by me because I got down there complaining to everybody,” he said as he scrolled through his calendar on his online VA healthcare profile.
John lives just 15 minutes from the Little Rock medical center in the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System. But he said an appointment can take weeks to actually arrive.
“I drive up through here, and I’ve waited over a month to get an appointment,” he said.
John spent 16 years in the Army. He was discharged as a sergeant with a list of health problems like diabetes, back issues and a traumatic brain injury that make even a walk to the hospital entrance a chore.
“I know people are afraid to speak out against the VA,” he said. “I’m scared to death right now. I can’t afford to lose my 100 percent disability, because all of my health issues are related to my service. But I couldn’t sit by and not say something. It’s not just for me, it’s for the others out there.”
This war-seasoned soldier was afraid for us to use his full name when speaking out about concerns he has with the VA’s healthcare system.
He’s not alone. Nearly half a dozen veterans contacted Fox16 after we reported on an Inspector General’s investigation that found the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare system had manipulated appointment dates to make the wait list seem less lengthy.
“My last appointment, I had to go through a circus to get an appointment for the next day because of my blood sugar,” John said. “I nearly died. I went to the Emergency Room at a civilian hospital, and they told me to get in to see my doctor the next day. When I called the VA to make an appointment, they told me it would be 45 days.”
According to John, he had to actually travel up to the CAVHS in Little Rock and begin making complaints in person to the administration.
Following the Inspector General’s report, CAVHS said it implemented new training regiments for schedulers, began conducting regular audits of scheduling practices and increased oversight to insure veterans’ access to healthcare was timely. And according to CAVHS, those techniques have improved patient access.
“It’s laughable, that’s laughable saying that they have better wait times,” John said. “I just don’t know where those numbers are coming from. Every time I am in the waiting room, there’s several of us talking about how we’ve had our appointments for months trying to get in.”
John added that even when he’s attempted to utilize the VA Choice Program, which allows vets with a wait of more than 30 days or those who live more than 40 miles from a VA location to see private providers, it hasn’t delivered.
“You ask them to do the choice program, they tell you you ain’t qualified to do the choice program,” he said.
CAVHS staff weren’t available for an on-camera interview in time for our deadline, but they did express concern over veterans who say they’re having troubles.
However, CAVHS staff pointed to data tracking wait-times for veterans’ appointments. The most recent data (page 17 of the April report) shows that as of April 2016, only five percent of appointments have been scheduled more than 30 days out from the patient preferred date. That affects roughly 1,300 veteran appointments at the Little Rock hospital.
According to CAVHS data, the primary care wait time is about 10 days, despite John telling us his 45-day wait time was the norm for his experience with the VA in Little Rock.
“I’ve never had an explanation or anything, even when I went to patient rep they say that we’re doing a better job than we’ve ever done,” he said.
John wasn’t sure where the disconnect is. He can only speak to his experience and what he’s heard from others. But he did say he thought that proved there’s a breakdown in communication between the VA and the vets it serves.
We’re working with CAVHS to schedule a sit-down to talk about how it tracks wait times, and if veterans could be waiting longer than what the data might be capturing. That’s what a Government Accountability Office report found after reviewing a sampling of six VA medical centers.
The Government Accountability Office report, released earlier this week, found that scheduling errors, zeroed-out wait time appointments and unreliable wait-time data persisted in the VA system. The GAO noted the results from the six centers shouldn’t be generalized, but it also didn’t limit its findings to predicting the issues were only occurring there.
The Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System was not among the six centers reviewed.
“These veterans deserve better,” John said. “Even if it’s communication and accountability of firing people who can’t do their job effectively. We deserve better.”
John said he can’t afford to leave the VA or the programs he relies on behind. He hopes the road forward is a little less lengthy to get the care he was promised for his service.
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