VA scandal: Average wait times up to 71 days for care

Two years after a nationwide scandal prompted an investigation, unacceptably long wait times persist at Veteran Affairs (VA) facilities, according to a federal watchdoreport.

An audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the VA's method of calculating wait times often conceal the actual time it takes before a patient sees a clinician.

The analysis of 180 veterans at six VA centers found average wait times between 22 and 71 days. Twelve veterans who had eventually been seen had faced waits of more than 90 days. Sixty vets still hadn't been seen by the time the GAO concluded its investigation. Investigators attribute those delays to clerical errors or lack of follow-up from the VA.

The report found that according to the most generous estimate, the official VA wait times underestimate wait times by a factor of two.

"This report proves what we've long known: wait-time manipulation continues at VA and the department's wait-time rhetoric doesn't match up with the reality of veterans' experiences," said House Veterans Affairs' Committee Chair Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), according to the Washington Post. "But given the fact that VA has successfully fired just four people for wait-time manipulation while letting the bulk of those behind its nationwide delays-in-care scandal off with no discipline or weak slaps on the wrist, I am not at all surprised these problems persist."

In a Committee hearing Tuesday morning, Miller also blasted the VA for failing to protect whistleblowers from retaliation and penalize that retaliation, noting that VA records indicate only six people have been disciplined for retaliating against whistleblowers in recent years, none of whom were outright removed. "This is representative of of the fact that contrary to statements by public officials, retaliation against whistleblowers appears to be certainly tolerated within the department," he said.

The GAO report comes just days after VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin, M.D., authored a case study that detailed how the VA resolved more than 50,000 cases of over-long waits, outlining a strategy of shutting down operations for the day to resolve the cases, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

"This is my number-one priority," Shulkin said at the hearing, noting that since assuming his office, the VA had made "significant, sustainable improvements," addressing 81,000 urgent appointments and resolving 93 percent and noting the VA's "Declaration of Access" for access reforms pending this month, which includes same-day primary care and mental healthcare access.

To learn more:
- download the GAO report (.pdf)
- here's the Post article
- watch the Committee hearing