Montana Vets Question Federal Health Officials

Meeting is one of many the VA is holding around the country in an effort to improve services

By Matt Volz, Associated Press

HELENA — The acting director of the Veterans Affairs Montana Health Care System said Wednesday he isn’t waiting for a follow-up inspection to a national audit to figure out ways to cut the long waiting period for initial doctors’ appointments.

An investigation into patient access problems in the VA’s health care system nationwide flagged the Fort Harrison medical center and outpatient centers in Billings and Great Falls as three of the 110 facilities in need of further review.

The audit found that Fort Harrison patients wait an average of 48 days for their first appointment with a primary doctor. VA Montana officials said they are trying to cut that period down to less than 30 days.

Acting Director Johnny Ginnity said the auditors have not yet followed up on that June report, but VA Montana officials already have started making changes. They include retraining its schedulers, updating software and hiring 150 to 200 new clinical and support staffers over the last three months.

“Any type of inspection, or anything that comes in, it is an opportunity to improve and enhance the processes we have, or change the things we need to change,” he said.

Ginnity spoke to The Associated Press after he and other top officials from the VA Montana health care system took questions in a public meeting from about three dozen veterans.

The veterans had concerns and complaints that included their messages going unreturned and being lost in a bureaucratic maze when trying to schedule an appointment.

Korea War veteran James Heffernan told the panel that he tried several times to move up an appointment for his severe hip pain. He finally got a message back from a VA employee named Judy earlier this month. But when he dialed the number she left, the operator told him, “We’ve got a lot of Judys.”

“Enough is enough. Something’s got to be done,” Heffernan said. “When they say I’ll call you back, damn it, call back. Don’t wait over two weeks.”

Another person in the audience, Army veteran Carole Kiley, said the VA provided fewer services to female veterans than their male counterparts. She called for a women’s clinic and the reinstatement of a military sexual assault trauma group the VA stopped offering in June.

Ginnity responded by saying a gynecologist had just been hired full time and an expansion project was planned for 2016 that would add patient rooms designed for gynecological care. He asked Kiley if he could follow up with her by phone.

“I don’t want to hear from anybody here unless you tell me you’re going take care of women veterans the same as you take care of men veterans,” she responded. She later agreed when Ginnity asked if she would participate on a future panel.

The VA officials acknowledged — and shared — the concerns about additional strains to the system as thousands of deployed troops return from Afghanistan and the Middle East. Ginnity said the main concern is the lack of space in clinics across the state.

The meeting is one of many the VA is holding around the country in an effort to improve services and rebuild trust in the wake of reports of long wait times and falsified records at the Phoenix VA Center.

Beside the 48-day average wait for new patients to see a primary care doctor, new patients at Fort Harrison also had to wait an average of 39 days for an appointment with a specialist.

The average was 26 days for an appointment with a mental-health provider at Fort Harrison. Established patients had much shorter waiting periods, from two to seven days.

The report did not detail the wait times for the centers in Billings and Great Falls, nor did it say why those facilities were identified as being in need of further review.