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Lawmakers to probe VA appointment delays

Mar. 5, 2013 - 04:28PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 5, 2013 - 04:28PM  |  
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A House investigative committee will try March 14 to get to the bottom of complaints from veterans about delays in getting medical appointments at Veterans Affairs Department hospitals and clinics.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a retired Marine Corps officer who also served in the Army, will conduct the hearing in his role as chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's oversight and investigations panel. The hearing was originally scheduled for Wednesday but was postponed because of snow.

A VA-wide review of wait times for appointments has not been conducted for several years, but a partial review in 2012 found that 49 percent of first-time patients were seen within 14 days; but for the other 51 percent, it took an average 50 days to schedule initial examinations.

VA's inability to provide an accurate assessment of the average time to schedule an appointment and receive treatment will be one focus of the hearing, where Coffman is expected to challenge VA's ability to reliably report on its own performance, according to congressional aides.

On Tuesday, the commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation's largest organization for combat veterans, said getting appointments appears to be a major problem.

"The VFW continues to hear of delays in appointment times, especially for specialty care," said John Hamilton, testifying before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees. "We must not fail to provide the care these heroes have earned in a timely manner."

In a report earlier this year, the VA inspector general reported that veterans trying to get medical appointments can run into unhelpful staff. In one case in San Diego, a veteran called for an appointment because of a cut on a finger that had become infected. He was told someone would call him back to make an appointment. He called back after not hearing anything for six days, and was again told to wait for a call back, according to an IG report, which called for better training for call center workers.

The report did not, however, appear to take the incident very seriously, saying the veteran was told he could go to an emergency room if he felt he needed to be seen right away. A review of treatment records from the hospital where the veteran sought care revealed the providers did not consider this a serious injury.

The Independent Budget, a document released in early February by major veterans groups, says mental health counseling is one of the areas with long wait times, but that getting a firm answer on delays is difficult because VA does not make available the number of veterans waiting for appointments.

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