Originally Published: June 10, 2014 6 a.m.
PRESCOTT - Scheduling and appointments will be the focus of an internal Veterans Affairs investigation aimed at the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System in Prescott.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday announced the Prescott VA would be further scrutinized following the release of an internal audit conducted at 731 VA hospitals and clinics across the nation.
The audit looked at reports from VA facilities across the nation to determine wait times for veterans seeking medical assistance. In Prescott, that audit looked at a May 16 scheduling and appointments report, which listed a wait time of approximately 60 days for primary care doctors. By contrast, wait times at the Phoenix VA were listed at 55 days. The longest VA wait time comes from Honolulu, Hawaii, which showed a wait time of 145 days, according to the Veterans Affairs report.
The audit showed a total of 1,115 newly enrolled veterans in Prescott who had not had appointments scheduled for 90 days and 139 veterans, enrolled in the past 10 years, who have not been scheduled for appointments. In Phoenix, 1,715 new patients had not had appointments scheduled for 90 days and 1,075 veterans, enrolled in the past 10 years, who have not been scheduled for appointments.
Since that May 16 report, Prescott's wait times have been lowered from 60 days, according to data provided by new Prescott VA Public Affairs Officer Mary Dillinger.
"Our current number, as of Thursday, June 5, is 46 days for primary care appointments," she said. "The wait times have significantly decreased."
Many of the veterans on the list, she said, were recently contacted and asked if they would prefer to see a primary care doctor in the private sector rather than in the VA system. Hours were also recently changed to lower the number of wait days.
"We've had weekend clinics open. We've had providers working later hours. Our normal hours for providers were from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. appointments for the veterans. There have now been evening clinics open," Dillinger said.
The number of patients a single provider could see was also increased to meet the patient demand, Dillinger said.
"Prior to the Phoenix investigation, we already had a communication plan in place to bring the numbers down. Leadership had already started working on that," Dillinger said.
Patients in the Prescott area and the rest of northern Arizona that use the services at the Prescott VA often choose to wait on the list rather than see a private practice physician.
"That means they are still going to sit on that list. The number of wait days will never go down to zero. We're always going to have patients waiting, but the goal is to try to get them in sooner or at least let them know we haven't forgotten about them," Dillinger said.
Veterans that are service-connected - those disabled by an injury or illness that occurred during their active military service - get top priority in the VA, Dillinger explained. Regular "service connected" and then regular veterans follow on that priority list.
A statement from Donna Jacobs, executive director for the Prescott VA, said 95 percent of the VA's initial appointments were scheduled within a 30-day time period.
"(Prescott VA) cares deeply for every veteran we are privileged to serve. Our goal is to provide timely access and quality health care for our veterans because they have earned and deserve it," Jacobs said in the Monday statement.
Patients are managed by the use of electronic waiting lists (EWL) and the New Enrollment Appointment Request (NEAR). EWL lists the total number of new patients who have not been seen within 90 days. The NEAR list, meanwhile, lists the total number of newly enrolled veterans that have requested appointments, Dillinger said.
The recent audit went on to suggest elimination of a 14-day goal for seeing first-time patients as a measure of performance evaluation because it is unrealistic.