The Legion's Roscoe Butler tells a congressional subcommittee of the Legion's findings regarding VA medical appointment wait times. (Photo by Craig Roberts)

Patient wait times still too long at VA

The American Legion testified at a March 14 congressional hearing that examined how long America’s veterans have to wait for their scheduled appointments at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities. Roscoe Butler, national field representative for the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, presented the testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Through its System Worth Saving (SWS) program, the Legion has been acutely aware of wait time problems for a decade. In 2003, the first SWS report noted that – out of more than 300,000 veterans waiting for health-care appointments – more than half had been waiting more than eight months. At one VA medical center in the southeastern U.S., about 14,000 veterans had waited longer than six months for their appointments.

In its testimony, the Legion offered three specific recommendations to help alleviate lengthy wait-times for VA appointments: Devote a greater effort in filling all empty VA staff positions, improve information technology solutions, and develop a better plan for scheduling appointments outside traditional business hours.

VA’s difficulties with mental-health scheduling clearly indicate how the lack of available medical staff contributes to long wait times for patients. Despite VA efforts to hire an additional 1,600 mental health-care providers, one-third of those positions remained vacant as of last month. "This does not even address the previous 1,500 vacancies, and stakeholder veterans’ groups are left to wonder if VA is adequately staffed to meet the needs of veterans," Butler said. " We believe they are not."

Last October, The American Legion passed Resolution 44 that called on VA to create a record system that could be shared by its Veterans Benefits Administration and Veterans Health Administration. The Legion hoped that such a system would become a key component in the planned Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record project, "so veterans must continue to contend with VBA and VHA systems that do not communicate as well as they should," Butler said. In any case, he added, "all can agree that the current system is not serving the needs of veterans, and needs to be updated."

The growing number of women veterans, many with spouses and families, means that VA needs to find a better way to address the needs of those who find it difficult to make appointments during normal business hours. The Legion’s Resolution 40 calls on VA to provide more extended and weekend hour options, and to hire enough staff to handle the additional appointments.

"VA has a truly first-rate standard of care," Butler said. Yet, "veterans aren’t able to access it with anywhere near the ease with which they should. Even the best care in the world is of little service to veterans if they cannot easily schedule timely appointments."