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VA's Northwest regional head says wait times have plunged

VANCOUVER, Wash. — The Department of Veterans Affairs health-care network in the Northwest has been one of the nation’s fastest growing in the last three years — and until recently had some of the longest patient wait times in the nation.

But Lawrence Carroll, the network’s regional director, reaffirmed Thursday there have been no widespread efforts here to conceal wait times through false record keeping, a tactic uncovered at the Phoenix VA and elsewhere in the nation.

“We had here in the Northwest network, the largest waitlist,” he said. “ I don’t mean to say that with any pride. ... That is completely unacceptable. But we knew about it. We have been forthright and transparent about it.”

On a national level, the concealed waitlists triggered a major scandal, led to the ouster of the secretary of Veterans Affairs and helped spur the recent passage of $15 billion legislation to overhaul the agency.

On Thursday at the VA offices in Vancouver, Carroll briefed Democratic Sen. Patty Murray on efforts to reduce the waiting times in the region, which includes Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho.

A nationwide audit released in July surveyed schedulers in the region to determine if allegations of inappropriate scheduling practices were isolated incidents or part of a broader problem within the system.

But in a briefing document released to Congress, the VA said that the audit had limitations and could “not distinguish between deliberate deceptions and confusion about policy.”

One of the key questions asked schedulers if they thought they were instructed to change a date that a veteran asks to be seen for a medical appointment. At the Puget Sound VA, which includes facilities in Seattle and American Lake, 33 percent said they did feel that they received such instructions. That was far higher than the 12.7 national average for positive responses to that question.

Puget Sound schedulers also listed concerns that patients were tracked outside the standard scheduling process.

Carroll attributed the audit findings to staff confusion about the complicated scheduling process. He said auditors who briefed him told that there did not appear to be any hidden lists or falsification of scheduling.

“I stand by my earlier statements that we do not have the issues that have been reported elsewhere in the country,” Carroll said.

Carroll said any incidents of wrongdoing uncovered will be investigated and staff, including senior staff, will be held accountable.

Carroll said that in recent months, waitlist problems have eased substantially in the region by having doctors see patients weekend and nights, stepping up efforts to fill vacant positions, increased referrals to doctors outside the VA system, and other steps.

“ It’s really taken a precipitous drop because we really have turned up the intensity,” Carroll said.

At the Puget Sound VA, the number of patients on an extended waitlist has dropped by more than 90 percent from May 15 to Aug 1, according to VA data.

Murray on Thursday said she believes progress is being made.

“We have a responsibility as a nation ... to make sure we are meeting the needs of ours,” Murray said. Everyone is paying attention, and the country wants us to do it right.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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