Report: Atlanta VA has 3rd longest wait time for new patients

Data obtained by USA TODAY shows more than 356,000 veterans sought out new medical care in the six months between October 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014. Of those, just two out of five saw a doctor within the target of 14 days. Nationwide, the average wait for an appointment was nearly double that – 27 days.

Those numbers, already grim, may grow far worse as the investigation into doctored wait times at Veterans Affairs hospitals continues. The data includes figures at hospitals and health care centers that investigators say falsified their figures to make them appear far better than they actually are.

Related: VA chief Shinseki resigns

Despite the potentially false figures included in Friday's data release, the numbers show that at many hospitals, veterans already are waiting weeks – sometimes months – for care. In Nashville, it takes more than two months for the average new patient to see a doctor. In Atlanta, Gainesville, Fla., and Portland, Ore., veterans are put on hold for more than 50 days.

At Atlanta's VA Medical Center in Decatur, the average wait time for new patients is listed at 56.5 days -- tied for third longest in the nation. Nashville had the longest wait time of 65 days for new patients, Fayetteville North Carolina's Medical Center was second longest with 56.8, and the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond tied with Atlanta. The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga., was 130th out of the 141 facilities listed, with an average wait time of 13.1 days.

The Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia, had the shortest average wait time: 7.7 days.

Related: Inspector General won't say if Ga. VA facilities are under investigation

Only 19 of the VA's 140 health care facilities reported average wait times within the administration's target range. Some – in Richmond, Va., Columbia, S.C. and Hampton, Va. – said fewer than 20% of new patients got in to see a doctor within that 14-day time frame.

The VA has confirmed that 42 facilities are under investigation for having falsified their wait records. It is unclear exactly which hospitals are being scrutinized, although investigators singled out some in a recent report.

According to an Office of Inspector General report, the Phoenix VA Health Care System showed patients waited 24 days in 2013, while in reality the actual delay averaged nearly four months. In the first six months of 2014, Phoenix reported average wait times of 22 days, according to the data released Friday – indicating that officials continued to conceal prolonged waits at the facility.

Numbers from other hospitals reveal a two-tiered system of care. Hawaii's VA Pacific Islands Health Care System reported that 42% of its patients saw doctors within 14 days. But those who didn't get seen quickly were left to linger: the average wait time for the rest was two and a half months.

Peggy Portwine says her son Brian, who did two tours of duty in Iraq, was suffering from post-traumatic stress and a brain injury when he committed suicide. She says current wait times are simply unacceptable.

And the problem exists statewide. At Carl Vinson Medical Center in downstate Dublin, patients waited 27 days to see a doctor.

A spokesperson for the Decatur facility provided a statement saying, "The current wait times are unacceptable, and we are engaging in several different initiatives to improve access. Additional appointments have already been added to primary care physician schedules and Saturday clinics are being added."

While some have called the recent resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki a step in the right direction, others have questioned how much impact that is likely to have on problems described as widespread and systematic.


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