HELENA — Military veterans in Montana wait an average of 48 days for their first primary-care visit in the Veterans Affairs health system, longer than VA systems in most neighboring states, the VA reported Monday.
Trena Bonde, chief of staff for the VA health system in Montana, told reporters that Montana’s system has an initiative to improve wait times, but that she didn’t consider waits “excessive” in the state.
However, Bonde acknowledged that Montana’s system sometimes has difficulty recruiting primary-care doctors and other medical professionals to handle an increased workload.
“We need to try and get as much primary-care staff as we can,” she said. “We constantly recruit. … It’s challenge to keep them here. It’s a challenge to get them here in the first place. .. It just takes a unique personality to be in a rural state like Montana.”
Bonde said the Montana system’s goal is to get patients an initial appointment within 30 days. Nationwide, the VA had set a 14-day goal, but a VA audit released Monday said that goal is not attainable, given the growing demand for services.
Also Monday, two members of Montana’s congressional delegation made their own respective proposals to address the problem of veterans waiting too long to receive care from the VA health system.
Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., a veteran of the Iraq War, called on President Barack Obama to form an independent commission to review the care veterans get from the VA.
U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who is running against Walsh this year, co-sponsored a bill that would require the VA to pay for health care outside the system for any eligible veteran who can’t get an appointment within 14 days.
The VA’s national audit of wait times said 13 percent of the schedulers for the system’s 731 hospitals and clinics had been told by supervisors to falsify appointment schedules to make waits appear shorter.
Bonde said the VA is further reviewing the Montana system to determine why wait-time goals aren’t met, but that she does not believe any “willful misconduct” occurred here, or that any veterans died or suffered harm while waiting for appointments.
Wide wait range
Nationwide, average wait times for first-time appointments ranged from a low of 12 days at the VA facility in Bedford, Mass., to a high of 145 days in Honolulu.
The only VA facility in the region with a higher average wait time than Montana was Rapid City, S.D., at 49 days.
Average wait times at other facilities in neighboring states ranged from 23 days at Boise, Idaho, to 45 days at Sheridan, Wyo.
The audit also said 96 percent of initial visits in Montana had been scheduled in 30 days or less and that only 95 out of 20,435 appointments had been scheduled more than 90 days out.
Dean House, senior vice commander for the Montana Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Monday he hears from veterans about many problems with the system, and that wait times are definitely a problem.
House said he called the system’s Kalispell clinic in mid-May to make an appointment, but couldn’t get one until August.
“He’s been a good doctor for me; I just can’t get in to see him,” he said of the VA physician in Kalispell. “And when I do get in to see him, it’s probably no more than 10 minutes, because he is pushed that hard.”