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VA head apologizes for problems, sees progress at Dorn

Barry Coates testifies during a Veterans Affairs hearing Wednesday morning, April 9, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Mr. Coates is a military veteran who is still dealing with problems from his medical treatment at Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C.

Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson apologized for past problems at Dorn VA Medical Center that he characterized as “absolutely unacceptable,” but he also said Wednesday that recent changes in personnel and processes have allowed the Columbia facility to begin turning the corner.

Gibson was referring to a 2012 gastroenterology consultations backlog of 4,000 cases at Dorn that has been linked to 52 cases of cancer and at least six deaths. Gibson’s focus in his first few weeks in the position have been on rooting out and fixing problems with extended wait times and bureaucratic cover-ups of those times. Dorn also ranked poorly in recent surveys of wait times.

“Here in Columbia, I think everybody understands that we’ve had some serious problems in the past,” Gibson said. “The delays in the GI consults that occurred back in 2012 were absolutely unacceptable. Veterans clearly suffered as a result of those delays, and it’s just not how the VA operates.”

Dorn has hired additional physicians and staff in gastroenterology, and a new gastroenterology chief will come on board in a few weeks, Gibson said.

Likewise, wait times for primary care appointments at Dorn have been cut by extending weekday hours, adding Saturday hours and adding staff. Together, those changes have added 1,700 appointment slots for new patients in primary care, optometry, orthopedics and rehabilitation. The wait for first appointments of new primary care patients have been cut from about 77 days in early June to about 53 days this week, according to Dorn officials.

The VA is now tracking those wait times and reporting them online every two weeks. The July 3 report lists Dorn’s primary care wait as 56.91 days, but Dorn officials said Wednesday it’s down to 53 days now.

“We have to over-hire on our physician staff in order to keep up with the demand that we’re seeing,” said Timothy McMurray, who took over as director at Dorn in the spring. “That’s something I’ve been working very aggressively on.”

Meanwhile, the disability claims backlogs at Dorn have been cut by 57 percent in the past year, from a wait of 289 to 158 days, Gibson said.

The acting director, who took over after the resignation of Eric Shinseki in late May, sees the wait time improvements and says they still aren’t enough. He wants people a couple of years from now to be talking about the amazing progress at the VA hospitals.

“The needed ingredient for all of that is the will of leaders all across the organization, not one or two people, but hundreds of leaders all across the VA to seize the opportunity that we have right now,” he said. “I am convinced that we can and will come out of the end of this process at some point not too far down the road we will be a much better organization, a stronger organization, delivering better outcomes for veterans.”

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