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Wait list revealed for Hampton VA Medical Center

Jordan Crawford | 6/16/2014, 10:23 a.m.
The Hampton VA Medical Center wants to avoid scandalous publicity about wait times at the facility amid ongoing national controversy rattling the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.

The Hampton VA Medical Center apparently wants to sidestep any chance of scandalous publicity as it released a letter, last Friday, about wait times at the facility amid ongoing national controversy rattling the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.

The letter from director Michael H. Dunfee, posted after office hours, revealed that four of the Center’s 41 specialty clinics have a wait time of greater than 90 days for new patients. Audiology has the largest waiting list with 200 patients, dental 123, podiatry 37, and urology 25.

The letter also revealed a weakness in the center’s enrollment system for new patients, and Dunfee said the Hampton VA can’t validate that all veterans who requested appointments were contacted.

Dunfee was unable to be reached for comment.

In April, a VA report about delayed care for gastrointestinal patients, specifically the provision of timely colonoscopies, placed Hampton as the third worst among VA facilities in the nation with two patient deaths over a 15-year span, and several patients with adverse outcomes. At the time, Dunfee responded that he was not able to give the length of the delays regarding the deaths in Hampton, but said they were a result of processing requests for diagnostic procedures and not for treatment. He announced the recent addition of more community health providers, part of a national initiative, to lessen wait times.

Subsequent investigations by the Office of the Inspector General have focused primarily on the Phoenix VA facility, where as many as 40 deaths were alleged as a result of delayed care. The investigation also uncovered the use of secret waiting lists by Phoenix officials in order to meet the system-wide 14-day goal for new patients to receive primary care.

The resulting firestorm led to the resignation of Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, who in 2011 instituted the 14-day wait-time goal— down from the 30-day standard established in 1995. A few days later, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki also resigned. Before leaving office, Shinseki directed that wait times should no longer be part of hospital directors’ performance reviews and canceled the attached bonuses.

Last week, a report in USA Today pegged the Hampton VA Medical Center, which serves 45,000 veterans, as meeting the 14-day standard for new patients less than 20 percent of the time, with an average wait of more than 35 days for primary care. It also noted, with their names eliminated, that 42 VA facilities are now under investigation for falsification of records.

In his letter, Dunfee stated categorically, “The Hampton VAMC does not have any lists outside of the VA computer system or maintain any lists for the purpose of making our waiting times look better than they actually are.” However, he did reveal weaknesses in the New Enrollee Appointment Request (NEAR) Call List used by veterans enrolling for the first time.

“The NEAR Call List was not being used as a tool for documenting that appropriate contact was being made, and we are therefore not able to validate that all veterans who requested appointments have been offered our services. This has been corrected,” he wrote.

Since this information has just been released, no one was available to clarify this statement or to explain the corrective measures taken. Dunfee noted that the Center had 836 veterans on the NEAR List of whom it had initiated contact with 807 with the promise that the remaining 29 would be contacted by the end of the day, on Friday, June 6.

He further stated, “Being on the NEAR Call List at no time excluded any eligible veteran from taking advantage of VA services. … For instance, if an eligible veteran called in or stopped by the medical center to check on the status of their enrollment and asked for an appointment, they would have been provided an appointment.”

To accommodate increased demand the Hampton VAMC has added several medical staff in the past year, including primary care providers and support staff and 26 new mental health clinicians. In the next six weeks, it plans to add a dentist, orthopedic surgeon, audiologist and urology physician assistant. It is still recruiting for a urologist and more mental health care providers.

The full letter can be found at www.hampton.va.gov.