VA audit confirms long wait times: San Diego ranks 3rd in state

SAN DIEGO - New patients at Veterans Affairs medical facilities in the San Diego region generally had to wait nearly 44 days for a primary care or specialty care appointment, according to a system-wide audit released Monday.

The Department of Veterans Affairs launched a nationwide access audit last month after it was reported that patients at the VA medical center in Phoenix died while awaiting care. The scandal led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

An audit by the department showed more than 57,000 veterans were waiting an average of 90 days to get their first appointment.

The audit found that in San Diego, 94 percent of appointments were booked with a wait time of 30 days or less, but new patients had to wait an average of two weeks longer. New patients seeking mental health services were seen, on average, in 34 days.

Established patients at the VA San Diego Healthcare System were seen within three to five days, according to the audit.

"Our data reveals that 96 percent of veterans are seen in 30 days and that's for all appointments," said Jeff Gering, the director of the VA San Diego Healthcare System.

On average, the audit found that in California, Los Angeles has a wait time of more than 56 days, Loma Linda 44 days, San Diego had 43.8 days and Fresno had a wait of 25 days. Honolulu had the worst at 145 days.  

For veterans waiting past 30 days, Gering said they will be offered the opportunity to be seen by a private physician at VA expense. San Diego County has 220,000 veterans and 75,000 are seen by the VA every year.  

"The numbers have increased 5 percent here," said Gering, adding what should help is the opening of another clinic in Sorrento Valley next month.

The Escondido Community Outpatient Clinic, which a local television station reported is privately run and contracts with the VA, was one of 31 flagged for requiring further review from facilities visited during phase two of the audit. The VA said the finding was based on responses by top officials at the facilities to questions and from comments from the site reports.

Nationally, the audit found that an "overly complicated scheduling process" results in "high potential to create confusion among scheduling clerks and front-line supervisors"; meeting a 14-day wait-time performance target was "simply not attainable because of a growing demand for services"; 13 percent of scheduling staff interviewed said they were instructed to enter a different date in the scheduling system than what the patient asked for; and pressure was placed on schedulers to make waiting times appear more favorable.

The national audit also found that staffing problems were discovered at smaller outpatient clinics.

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