DURHAM — Key measures of how long it takes for new primary care patients to be seen by the Durham Veterans Affairs system have improved sharply in the past year, according to figures released by VA officials Friday.
Local VA leaders, including DeAnne Seekins, director of the Durham VA Medical Center, spoke at a previously arranged news conference hours after President Barack Obama announced that the national head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, had resigned because of the growing national scandal centered around delays in treating VA patients.
The Durham VA officials painted a picture Friday of a local system that, while not perfect, has improved.
On average, it took 34 days for a new primary care patient to been seen for an appointment, they said. That was down from 65 days for patients in April 2013 and 55 days in April 2012.
That’s more than double the national VA’s stated goal of 14 days or less, but significantly better than the numbers at the Phoenix VA hospital now at the heart of the scandal. An investigation by the VA inspector general examined the cases of 226 veterans there and found that their average wait was 115 days for their first primary care appointment, though the hospital’s records said they had waited an average of 24 days for their first primary care appointment.
Seekins declined to say whether she believed that national goal was a recipe for failure. But she called it “very challenging.”
One problem with meeting it, Durham VA officials said, was that sometimes veterans ask for an appointment that’s outside the 14-day-range.
“We want to be patient-centered,” said Dr. Chad Kessler, the Durham VA’s deputy chief of staff. “We want to meet the patient’s demand, so when the patient wants to come, that’s when we want to see them.”
Although she wasn’t satisfied with the Durham VA’s 34-day average, Seekins said, it’s comparable to what many patients experience with private-sector health care.
The Durham-led system serves about 63,000 veterans. To give some sense of its caseload, officials said it had handled nearly 2,300 outpatient appointments on Monday.
The recent improvements in wait times here were possible, VA officials said, in part because in the past two years they have implemented a team-based approach where a patient is looked after by the same primary and specialty doctors and nurses.
“Now when we have a patient who is admitted, they receive a call within two days from their primary care team making sure they don’t need anything, that they have follow-up appointments and everything is in place,” Seekins said. “So what it means is that we have coordinated care for our veterans, which is unique, truly unique.”
Also, the Durham-based network has hired 110 more doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians assistants and other health care workers in the past year. And the system – which includes not only the Durham hospital but several smaller facilities across the eastern half of the state – have been growing. In January, the Durham VA opened a new 116,000-square-foot medical center in Greenville and is planning to expand one of its several Raleigh clinics.
That has improved access by making it easier for patients who may live hours from Durham to be seen, Kessler said.
It’s still unclear whether some of the most serious problems that have been found elsewhere in the national VA system are issues here.
Federal auditors are looking into wait times across the system, including at Durham. And weeks ago, the VA put two workers at the Durham hospital on paid administrative leave while the agency investigates claims that they violated policies in scheduling patient appointments between 2009 and 2012.
Ground rules for the news conference Friday included that the local VA officials wouldn’t answer questions about Shinseki’s resignation, the two employees put on leave, or the audit of wait times.
Seekins, though, who took the helm of the center less than two years ago, said she was confident that nothing illegal or improper regarding waiting lists for appointments had taken place on her watch.
She also said that she was told the audit results aren’t expected until August.
At several points in the news conference, the local VA officials sounded worried that the scandal would lead some veterans to shy away from the VA.
Kessler said that he hadn’t seen signs of people dropping appointments but added that it was hard not to be concerned.
And Seekins, who said her own father, a World War II veteran, was an inpatient at the hospital, offered a direct appeal to patients, saying that heading off such fears was one reason the VA officials had called the news conference.
“We want our veterans to feel safe, secure and to come here for the services,” she said. “We have excellent programs not only in acute medicine but also mental health services, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and we wanted to ensure our patients know that even though there is a lot of negative media out there, that we’re here, we’re ready, we’re strong, and we have the staff to provide those services.
“So please, do not miss your VA appointments. Continue to come to us,” she said. “We are a trusted health care provider.”