LAS VEGAS — In the months after lawmakers and federal officials vowed to do something about long waits for care in the Veterans Affairs health care system, many people who served in uniform are still waiting.
More than 14,400 medical appointments completed between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28 at the VA’s two hospitals and nine outpatient clinics in Nevada failed to meet the department’s timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days, according to government data reviewed by The Associated Press.
The AP examined six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics across the U.S. to see how things might have improved since a scandal over delays and a cover-up led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted lawmakers in August to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.
The statistics show that since the summer, the number of vets waiting more than 30 or 60 days for non-emergency care has largely stayed flat. The number of medical appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.
On average, some 2.8 percent of appointments nationwide were delayed at least 31 days before veterans received medical care.
In Nevada, the outreach clinic in the northern mining town of Elko faced the worst delays in the state at 7.6 percent. Officials and veterans say a doctor shortage has contributed to the problem.
The town’s small clinic, staffed by two nurses, is visited by a Salt Lake City physician once a month for a week at a time. Otherwise, patients meet with the physician via teleconference.
Jill Atwood, a spokeswoman for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System which includes Elko, said new patients also contribute to the delays, but “our one main issue in Elko is we cannot get a provider.”
The agency has been on a nationwide hunt for a full-time doctor for more than a year.
Of Nevada’s nine VA medical clinics, only four beat the national average for percentage of delayed appointments.
Neither of the state’s two VA hospitals, including the Southern Nevada VA hospital that opened in 2013 after going over budget by some $260 million, reported improvements in the number of patients facing delays.
The Sierra Nevada VA hospital in Reno was ranked 102 among the 940 facilities nationwide for its rate of delays at 5 percent for the six-month period.
Of the cases at the newer Southern Nevada hospital in North Las Vegas, 3.4 percent were delayed for at least 30 days.
Rich Beam, a VA spokesman for the area that includes Las Vegas, said it’s been difficult to recruit doctors to improve wait times. “You’ve got to find the right people,” he said.
In 12 months, southern Nevada’s hospital and clinics hired 198 people, he said. Comparatively, the Long Beach, California, VA hospital and its five related clinics hired 272 people in five months.
“Vegas is a rough spot for recruitment on a good day,” he said.
Couple that with new veteran enrollment in the area, about an average of 150 new veterans a week, and the system’s ability to provide timely health care gets worse, Beam said.
“It’s not just a VA hospital problem,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada. “It’s all about providers.”
He spoke after meeting with a veteran advisory committee in Las Vegas where a veteran said he had seen 12 different doctors in 10 years.
Heller said a medical school in southern Nevada, a plan the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, supports, would go a long way toward bolstering the state’s physician ranks.
Vietnam veteran Richard “Tony” Marshall, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10047 in Las Vegas, said wait times are about 45 days in most cases, but he says that’s a considerable improvement.
Up until several months ago, “it was ugly,” he said, with delays up to nine months.
When Marshall moved to Nevada two years ago he was told it would take a year to get an appointment with a primary care physician.
However, he said, “I commenced to hootin’ and hollerin’” and was seen in about two weeks.