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Warner demands change after Hampton VA visit

By Dianna Cahn

Appointment scheduling systems at Veterans Affairs medical centers are so convoluted that even at centers not flagged for long wait times, like in Hampton, problems persist, Sen. Mark Warner said following a visit there Friday.

“I think they are making genuine efforts to improve, but they’ve really got a bad data system,” Warner told The Virginian-Pilot in a phone interview.

The Virginia Democrat spent an hour and a half at the Hampton VA Medical Center, meeting with Michael Dunfee, the center’s director. Warner said the facility offers good care, but suffers from the same systemic problems as other VA hospitals.

Lawmakers have set aside $17 billion to fix the long wait times and other problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Warner said those fixes must be tackled immediately.

“I have little patience for more excuses,” he said. “We have got to see some results here. I think the quality of care is good. I think the scheduling system is a nightmare.”

In June, 112 VA health care facilities were flagged for further investigation. The Hampton VA was not on the list, but an internal review revealed problems in its scheduling system.

The problems arose from the center keeping two separate lists: one for patients seeking an appointment and another of patients already scheduled.

The VA’s data showed new patients in Hampton waited an average of 58 days for a primary care appointment, 68 days for specialty care and 54 days for mental health care. Established patients had significantly shorter waits of one to two days. Wait times were worse in Richmond but better in Salem and in two North Carolina facilities.

Warner said the scheduling problems were based on a long-outdated computer system used across the VA. He said he and other legislators have recruited technology companies to review the software and offer an alternative.

The Hampton VA has offered to try out a pilot program, Warner said.

Warner also identified other problems at the facility – in particular, a shortage of primary care doctors.

The number of patients getting care through the Hampton VA rose by 13,000, to 44,000, between 2008 and last year, a 42 percent increase, while staffing during the same period increased just 18 percent.

Demand for primary care grew from 89,000 appointments in 2012 to 109,000 in 2013.

Warner said he discussed with Dunfee the need for the medical center to contract with primary care doctors until staff physicians can be hired. He also urged the facility to expand its Virginia Beach clinic.

“I think there are systemic problems that require a fix at the national level,” he said. “I think the quality of care is pretty good. But I have got to see more progress.”

He said now that Congress has set aside money, VA medical centers in Virginia need to tell the state’s delegation what they need. He plans to return to Hampton in 30 days to get a better idea of the numbers.

“I want to know what they need to enhance the experience of our vets,” he said. “Now we’ve got the resources to do it, so let’s get it fixed.”


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