FAYETTEVILLE — The main reasons the VA Medical Center in Fayetteville has patients waiting too long to be seen are that it doesnt have enough space and it struggles to recruit and retain doctors and nurses, the acting head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday.
Sloan Gibson visited the hospital to talk with employees, veterans service organizations and members of the North Carolina congressional delegation. Afterward, he met with media representatives to announce steps the VA would take so that veterans in need of care in the Fayetteville area can get it faster, including allocating millions of dollars to pay for visits to private providers.
On Monday, the VA released the results of a national audit of its facilities that found the Fayetteville medical center had one of the longest average wait times in the country 83 days for new patients trying to get primary care. The average wait to see a specialist was 62 days, and to get mental health care, 27 days.
Far too many veterans in Fayetteville and across this country are being told they have to wait in line, Gibson said. Im here today to say that no veteran should ever have to wait for the care they have earned through their service and sacrifice.
Gibson has been at the agency four months and became acting secretary two weeks ago after the resignation of Eric Shinseki amid a growing scandal over patient wait times. He promised the VA would do better.
As the president said, we must work together to fix the unacceptable, systemic problems in accessing quality health care, he said. And that starts by addressing and solving the problems right here in Fayetteville.
The hospital had been working on the problem long before Gibsons visit.
Built in the 1940s, the Fayetteville VA Medical Center serves a region that includes 157,000 veterans living in 19 counties in North Carolina and two in South Carolina. The center provides general medical care, mental health care and surgery, and includes a 69-bed long-term care unit. It employs about 300 physicians, dentists, nurse practitioners and other licensed care providers.
The center is expanding, adding a nearly 260,000-square-foot health care center about 10 miles from its main campus, along with new outpatient clinics in Sanford and Jacksonville. The large new facility, set to open in 2015, is designed to provide outpatient primary and specialty care, day surgery, audiology, pharmacy and radiology services for up to 38,000 eligible veterans and their families.
Even so, Fayetteville VA Director Elizabeth Goolsby has said the facility still will be short of space.
Goolsby stood with Gibson at the news conference Thursday but did not speak.
Clinic sites identified
But Gibson said hospital administration has identified several possible sites in which to locate additional clinics, and he had instructed staff in Washington to be prepared to expedite requests to lease the additional space.
The Fayetteville VA also has had extended weekend and evening hours to see more patients.
To speed up the process, Gibson said the VA would commit $7.4 million to the Fayetteville center, most of that to pay for patients to go to private providers. Fayetteville already pays to contract with some local providers, Gibson said, and it will expand the program to take care of people who have waited the longest for treatment.
Gibson also said he would look into the possibility of offering bonuses to get health care providers to come to and stay at the Fayetteville facility, which he said has a hard time recruiting them. He did not say how much they might be offered.
Sen. Kay Hagan, who had requested that Gibson visit Fayetteville, said in a statement Thursday that while he had announced some positive steps to try to reduce the wait times for veterans there, much work remains to be done to restore the faith of our veterans.
Beyond the problems at Fayetteville, Gibson said, there is a leadership failure at any facility where appointment schedulers felt pressure or encouraged to manipulate the system so that it falsely appeared patients were being seen within the VAs stated goal of two weeks of their requested date.
The VA has removed the two-week goal from employee evaluations after learning in recent weeks that clinics and medical centers across the country concealed true wait times that sometimes stretched to several months.
New performance measures
Gibson said Thursday that he has been unable to find any other large health care system that uses average wait time as a major measure of performance, and he wants the VA to use metrics that better indicate how well the agency is caring for the more than 6 million veterans who use it each year.
Gibson came to the agency as deputy secretary of the VA after five years at the USO and more than 20 years in banking. He is a 1975 graduate of West Point.
Though VA physicians and researchers have done groundbreaking work that has helped patients at their facilities and beyond, the agency has at times struggled to fulfill President Abraham Lincolns promise To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan. Between 2009 and 2012, the U.S. veteran population dropped from 23 million to 22 million. During the same period, the number of patients the VA sees each year increased from 5.7 million to 6.3 million.
The VA is the nations largest integrated health care system. Its budget has grown from $100 billion in 2009 to $151 billion in the current fiscal year. Gibson said Thursday the agency has 341,000 employees across its three branches, which include health care, benefits and cemeteries.
Compared to those in the private sector, Gibson said, VA folks are working harder for less money. Most of them, he said, do a good job.