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Waits for new vets to see doctor for first time much longer, data show

| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

It takes an average of two months for new veterans to get their first doctor's appointment in the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, but those in the system wait less than two days on average, according to agency data.

VA Butler reported the country's second-shortest average wait time for enrolled veterans, at just over one-third of a day. New patients had to wait an average 35 days.

VA leaders in Washington reported the data as part of a nationwide audit it performed in response to widespread uproar over alleged secret VA practices around the country that whistleblowers say hid true wait times for veterans. Drew Brookie, a VA spokesman in Washington, didn't respond to Tribune-Review questions about whether VA leaders believe these wait times are accurate in light of mounting evidence of systemic deceit.

“Outrageous, unacceptable, unconscionable and immoral,” former Homeland Security Secretary and Vietnam veteran Tom Ridge said on Tuesday when asked about the wait list scandal after a fundraiser Downtown. Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor and congressman who served on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Congress needs to sharpen its oversight.

The House on Tuesday voted 421-0 for a bill to make it easier for veterans to get VA-paid care from private doctors. The bill is designed to alleviate a shortage of doctors to handle demand at some VA facilities. The Senate is working on a similar bill.

The VA Pittsburgh's average wait time of 1.25 days for veterans enrolled in its system to see a doctor ranks 31st out of 142 facilities across the country, according to the VA. But its 59.8-day wait for veterans trying to schedule their first appointment is the 20th worst, the data show.

Some veterans waited longer than a year for their first appointments, according to congressmen briefed on the New Enrollee Appointment Request list.

VA Pittsburgh workers in the last 11 days contacted most of the 636 area veterans who were on the list at the end of May, spokesman Mark Ray said.

“Our top priority is to get our veterans off wait lists and into clinics,” said acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson in a written statement. VA leaders plan to meet with private sector health care executives for advice on overhauling the country's largest hospital system, he said.

The Butler VA Healthcare System kept its wait times short because it has enough staff for the 18,000 veterans it treats each year, said director John Gennaro. VA auditors identified doctor shortages as one reason behind longer wait times at other facilities. Those auditors found no scheduling issues at Butler, Gennaro said.

“VA Butler has the resources and capacity to immediately enroll and to provide care for any eligible veteran needing VA care,” Gennaro said.

VA schedulers told the Trib previously about ways workers in Pittsburgh hid long wait times, including creating “phantom clinics” and manipulating computer programs. Similar allegations at other hospitals led VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30.

Staff writers Tom Fontaine and Carl Prine and the Associated Press contributed. Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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