VA halves wait times for patients in Pacific region
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: August 5, 2014
HONOLULU — The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to whittle down the wait times for patients in the military medical system in Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific.
New bimonthly national data released Thursday by the VA show that wait times for new patients waiting to see a primary care physician for the first time in the Pacific dropped to about 70 days from 145 days in mid-May.
According to a nationwide audit, Hawaii's 145-day delay for an incoming VA patient to get an initial appointment with a primary care physician was by far the worst in the entire system.
Wayne Pfeffer, director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, said June 16 that he hoped to reduce the wait time for new patients to 30 days within three months.
The Pacific system oversees the delivery of health care to more than 32,000 enrolled veterans in Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands. The Pacific system still is near the bottom of the barrel, with only two other VA locations nationally out of 141 — Baltimore, Md., and Fayetteville, N.C. — having worse new patient wait times, according to the snapshot on July 15.
The latest published data for the Pacific system also show that the number of patients on the electronic waitlist (new patients for whom appointments cannot be scheduled in 90 days or less) dropped to 270 from 569 back on June 15.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma and a physician, released an oversight report in June stating that over the past decade, more than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA misconduct, and the VA has paid out nearly $1 billion to veterans and their families for medical malpractice.
Pfeffer, who was appointed director of the Pacific Islands system in September, recently told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that in January about 1,700 patients were on the waiting list to schedule an appointment.
Although the VA's most recent nationwide report said there were 270 individuals on the Pacific waitlist as of July 15, the VA in Honolulu said the total on the electronic wait list dropped to 171 as of Friday.
Pfeffer told the Star-Advertiser that Hawaii's steady growth in veterans was met by staffing and space limitations.
"So the decision was made — and this was prior to my arrival — that we wanted to give timely, quality care to all the veterans that are in the system. The ones we felt we were too stretched to do ended up on the waiting list," he said.
About $500,000 has been alloted through September to extend hours and make other improvements, Pfeffer said.
Congress passed a $16.3 billion bill last week to overhaul the VA health care system.
U.S. Sen. Mazie K. Hirono said the bill includes $15.9 million for a planned VA Advance Leeward Outpatient Healthcare Access Center on Oahu.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill Thursday.