WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands more veterans than previously reported are forced to wait at least a month for medical appointments at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics, according to an updated audit of 731 VA medical facilities released Thursday.
The updated audit includes new figures showing that the wait times actually experienced at most VA facilities were shorter than those on waiting lists for pending appointments. For instance, new patients at the Atlanta VA hospital waited about an average of 44 days for an appointment in April, the new report said. But the average wait for pending appointments at Atlanta was 66 days.
Similar disparities in average wait times were found around the country. Pending appointments, for example, don't include patients who walk into a clinic and get immediate or quick treatment. They also don't reflect rescheduled appointments or those that are moved up because of openings due to cancellations.
VA officials said the two sets of data complement one another but both are evidence many veterans face long waits for care. More than 56,000 veterans were waiting more than 90 days for an initial appointment, the new report said.
"In many communities across the country, veterans wait too long for the high quality care they've earned and deserve," acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said.
The department has reached out to 70,000 veterans to get them off waiting lists and into clinics, Gibson said, "but there is still much more work to be done."
The report released Thursday showed that about 10 percent of veterans seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics have to wait at least 30 days for an appointment. That's more than double the 4 percent of veterans the government said last week were forced to endure long waits.
Gibson called the increase unfortunate, but said it was probably an indication that more reliable data was being reported by VA schedulers, rather than a big increase in veteran wait times.
Administrators at local VA medical centers questioned the results of the June 9 audit, which looked only at pending appointments, saying they did not match internal data on completed appointments showing waits actually were far shorter.
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The reliability of both sets of data is in question. The VA is investigating widespread manipulation of appointment data by schedulers following an uproar over since-confirmed allegations that at least 35 veterans died while awaiting appointments at the Phoenix VA medical center.
Some 13 percent of schedulers surveyed by the auditors reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment records to make patient waits appear shorter. The VA inspector general has cited a since-abandoned performance bonus system as a reason for the falsifications.