Wait times at Truman hospital shorter than VA's initial predictions

Friday, June 13, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:50 p.m. CDT, Sunday, October 12, 2014

COLUMBIA — A nationwide audit of wait times for new patients at veterans hospitals was based on predictions of future availability and not actual past appointment times recorded by hospitals, according to an internal Department of Veterans Affairs email obtained by the Missourian.

Widely reported numbers based on the VA's audit stated that new patients at Truman Veterans Hospital and its affiliated clinics wait on average 43 days for a primary care appointment, 66 days to see a specialist and 29 days for mental health treatment.

Those statistics ranked Truman Veterans Hospital 78th out of 141 facilities audited for primary care waiting times, 131st for specialty care and 46th for mental health services.

But according to the email, the numbers in the audit do not reflect "when appointments actually occurred" and do not take into account instances in which patients were seen sooner than scheduled or called to reschedule their appointments at later dates.

"Therefore, in certain cases our new data release overestimates actual waiting times experienced by Veterans," the internal email, signed by a senior official in Boston's VA Healthcare System, says.

Stephen Gaither, a spokesman for the veterans hospital in Columbia, said the clarification helped explain why the Truman staff had not been able to reconcile their numbers with those in the audit.

Gaither said that hospital records showed that on average, new patients wait 21 days for primary care, 39 days to see a specialist and 11 days for a mental health appointment. 

"The thing that's difficult for us is that for two days, the media has been reporting this as fact," Gaither said.

Monday's audit still included some good news for Columbia's veterans hospital.

Estimated wait times for Truman's established patients were far lower than the projected wait times for new patients.

The average predicted wait time for primary care was a single day, which ranks the hospital 18th nationwide among 141 veterans hospitals. The predicted wait for mental health care was 1.11 days, placing the hospital 50th in the U.S., and 2.87 days for specialist care, ranking the hospital 36th.

Those rankings are the best of the four veterans hospitals in Missouri, including facilities in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Poplar Bluff.

The veterans hospital's best showing in the audit was that 97.8 percent of its 61,743 appointments were estimated to be scheduled in 14 days or less, the fourth best in the country. Approximately 98.6 percent of appointments were expected to be scheduled in 30 days or fewer, which is 18th nationwide.

The audit comes after months of scrutiny for the VA that began with allegations in April that veterans were dying waiting for care and employees at Phoenix VA medical center falsified waiting lists to maintain the appearance of timely care.

An investigation by the department's Office of Inspector General found that the issues were widespread throughout the nation's 1,700 VA facilities, which provide medical care to 6.5 million veterans each year.

Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30, leaving acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson at the head of the department.

In addition to the data, the VA published its takeaways from the audit. Immediate actions to be taken included removing the 14-day appointment scheduling goal from employee performance plans. The VA has also suspended bonuses for all senior executive staff in the fiscal year 2014.

 Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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