WASHINGTON (AP) — Wait times for veterans care at VA hospitals and clinics have been reduced by 18 percent since May, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Thursday.
Average wait times for new primary care patients decreased from 51 days in May to 42 days as of Oct. 1, said McDonald, who took office in July. McDonald took the top spot at the agency following a scandal that broke last spring over whistleblower reports of veterans dying while on appointment schedules at VA hospitals and falsified records to cover up the long wait times.
The 42 days is still short of the department's goal of 30 days or less for a veteran to get a first-time appointment. Nonetheless, McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble CEO, said it represents "significant progress" as the VA works to reduce wait times and fix other longstanding problems at the agency
Meanwhile, "choice cards" started going out this week to about 300,000 veterans who live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic. Another 370,000 cards will be sent out starting Nov. 17 to veterans who have waited more than 30 days for an appointment. The cards allow those veterans to seek VA-paid health care from a local doctor instead.
The improved access to outside care is a key feature of a law Congress passed last summer to reduce patient wait times and address other problems at an agency overwhelmed by the influx of veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the aging of Vietnam War veterans and expanded eligibility for benefits as a result of exposure to Agent Orange and other problems.
"While more work remains, our dedicated employees are making progress to better serve veterans," McDonald said.
He said he has visited 41 VA facilities in 21 cities since taking office, as well as making 11 recruiting visits to medical schools to boost efforts to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and mental health counselors at the VA's 150 hospitals and 820 outpatient clinics.
Appearing at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, McDonald said the VA has taken a series of actions to improve services for veterans, rebuild trust and increase accountability and transparency at the agency.
Most of the actions were directed by a law President Barack Obama signed in August — a week after McDonald took office — that authorizes $16.3 billion in emergency spending for the VA.
The law devotes $10 billion to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can't get prompt appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, or those who live far from them. Only veterans who were enrolled in VA care as of Aug. 1 or live at least 40 miles away from a VA facility are eligible for outside care.
The law also sets aside $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical and mental health professionals and authorizes $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA outpatient clinics and other medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico.
And it gives McDonald authority to streamline the firing of poor-performing executives by shortening the time for dealing with appeals.
Implementing the law remains a work in progress, McDonald said, answering critics in Congress and elsewhere who say the VA is moving too slowly to fire managers involved in covering up the wait times. "These laws are very clear, and I'm skeptical whether members of Congress don't understand the law," he told reporters.
Only one of four senior employees recently targeted for removal has been fired, a fact that has infuriated Republican lawmakers, including Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, and Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Two employees retired and a third was granted an extension allowing her more time to reply to the VA's decision.
While removals may seem slow from the outside, "we're doing this as aggressively and expeditiously as possible by law," McDonald said. "We've got to make sure every action we take sticks."
VA has proposed disciplinary action, up to an including firing, against more than 40 employees nationwide since June, McDonald said.
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