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Minnesota VA Medical Centers Have Shorter Waits, Lawmakers Still Call Audit 'Concerning'

Updated: 06/09/2014 11:18 PM
Created: 06/09/2014 2:31 PM WDIO.com
By: Steve Karnowski, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Waiting times at the two Veterans Affairs medical centers in Minnesota are considerably lower than the worst trouble spots in the VA system, new audit data released Monday show.

The average wait time for a patient seeking primary care for the first time is 28 days at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and its outpatient clinics and 25 days for the St. Cloud system, the data show. But the waits are much shorter for established patients who are already in the VA system - three days for Minneapolis and two days for St. Cloud. Nationwide, the longest average wait for new patients seeking primary care is 145 days in Honolulu.

Waits for new patients seeking specialty care are longer - 50 days for new patients for the Minneapolis system and 47 days for St. Cloud's, compared with four days for established patients to see specialists for Minneapolis and five for St. Cloud. The longest average wait for new patients nationwide is 145 days in Harlingen, Texas.

Waits for first-time mental health patients are 29 days for the Minneapolis system and 33 days for St. Cloud's, compared with under a day for Minneapolis and under two days for St. Cloud's for established patients. The longest average wait for new patients nationwide is 104 days in Durham, North Carolina.

Overall, 98 percent of appointments are scheduled within 30 days or less in the Minneapolis system and 97 percent in the St. Cloud system compared with 96 percent nationwide.

"While we need to do better and make improvements in access to care, veterans should be confident we're going to be here for them and give them high-quality care," said Pat Kelly, director of the Minneapolis VA Health Care System.

St. Cloud VA Health Care System spokesman Berry Venable said the average waits for first-time patients exceed the VA's goal of 14 days. And he pointed out that the figures are averages, so some patients are waiting longer for care.

"We're not perfect. We've got work to do. And that's our pledge moving forward from this day," Venable said.

The data also show that 25 veterans had been waiting for more than 90 days for first appointments with the Minneapolis system as of May 15, while 10 had been waiting for more than 90 days for first appointments in St. Cloud's.

The data also showed that 1,396 veterans who've enrolled in the VA system and requested appointments in the Minneapolis system over the past decade had not been seen there, while the figure was 472 for St. Cloud's. Kelly said his center had gotten that number down to zero as of Thursday. He said it looked high because cases that had been resolved weren't being recorded as closed out.

The auditors flagged the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and its community clinic in Rochester for further review. Kelly said he hadn't been told why, but added he wasn't aware of any "integrity issues" and said he presumed the auditors would have told him if there were.

"Like many others here I'm anxious, I'm standing by," Kelly said.

"We need to ensure that this investigation is thorough and swift," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a statement after speaking with Kelly.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, called the new audit data "concerning" and encouraged the VA inspector general to immediately follow up with those facilities that were flagged for further review, including the Minneapolis and Rochester facilities.

"We must root out the bad actors and reform the system to ensure our veterans get the care they have earned," Walz said in a statement.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

The Phoenix VA Health Care Center has been embroiled in controversy over wait times.
AP Photo/Ross D Franklin

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