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Patient wait times at Pittsburgh VA are second longest in Pennsylvania

| Thursday, April 13, 2017, 7:39 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
VA Pittsburgh

Established patients at the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs Healthcare System's University Drive campus faced the second-longest wait times in the state to see a doctor in February, according to newly released VA data.

Patients waited eight days for a return appointment at the medical center, more than an average of about three days across Pennsylvania's 41 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics, the data show. Only the Crawford County VA Clinic had longer waits, averaging 22 days.

New patients at University Drive waited an average of 22 days, according to the data.

"Our need is such that we've got to shorten that time," said Michael Stelacio, a Pennsylvania American Legion alternate national executive committeeman.

The VA posted wait times and quality data to a website Wednesday for hospitals and outpatient clinics across the country in what a news release said was an effort to increase accountability and hold the system to a "higher standard."

Jason Fay, the Pittsburgh system's group practice manager, said the University Drive campus is the only VA hospital in the state to treat the highest-complexity patients, including those who need organ transplants and robotic surgery. Smaller hospitals and clinics in the state refer patients to Pittsburgh, adding to patient volumes, Fay said.

He said the system offers same-day appointments for veterans with urgent medical needs, part of the changes announced nationally after high wait times at VA hospitals received national attention in 2014.

"This is routine care," Fay said of the newly released wait times. "If a veteran needs to be seen on the same day, we would see them the same day."

He said the waits were similar to those for routine care at private-sector hospitals.

New patients in 15 of the largest U.S. cities faced average waits of 24 days in 2017, according to a survey by Merritt Hawkins, a Texas-based health care consultant.

In the past two to three years, the University Drive campus has added morning, evening and weekend slots for patient visits and expanded telehealth and electronic consultations, all part of efforts to reduce wait times, Fay said. The system has dedicated one doctor to walk-in and new patients, and has set aside more time for same-day visits, which helps drive down wait times, he said.

About 70 clinicians treat about 9,000 patients at the University Drive campus, Fay said. The system plans to improve scheduling of follow-up appointments and to try to reduce missed appointments to open up more patient slots, he said.

Along with the University Drive campus, the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System includes the H.J. John Heinz Campus in Aspinwall and outpatient clinics in Beaver, Fayette, Westmoreland and Washington counties. It also includes a clinic in Belmont County, Ohio.

New patients at the Westmoreland County VA Clinic faced a wait of 23 days in February, while returning patients waited an average of three days, according to the data. New patients at the Washington County VA waited an average of nine days, while returning patients waited an average of four days.

Waits across the system averaged five days for a primary care appointment and five days for a specialty care appointment in fiscal year 2016, when the system treated about 70,000 patients, according to an annual report.

The outpatient clinics are often in more rural locations and have more difficulty keeping enough doctors on staff to keep wait times down, Fay said.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or wventeicher@tribweb.com.

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