Local VA Records Show Improvements in Veterans' Wait Times

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WESLACO – CHANNEL 5 NEWS’ investigative team looked closer at data behind wait times at the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System clinics.

After scouring through records, we found a downward trend in wait times for returning patients. However, if you're a new patient, you can expect to wait as long as 70 days for care.

The Texas Valley Coastal Bend Veteran's administration booked more than 235,000 appointments for the fiscal year 2017 alone.

That works out to just shy of 30,000 patients churning through the system.

“We have radically changed the access to our patients,” said Dr. Jorge Ortegon, Chief of Medicine at the Texas Valley Coastal Bend VA.

He shared what happens if patients face high wait times.

"The health of the patient will deteriorate,” said Dr. Ortegon.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS wanted to find out exactly how long VATVCBHCS patients are waiting, so we pulled data from the VA's government website.

As of Sept. 1st, patients waited an average of five days for primary care, five days for specialists and 2.5 days for mental health care in the Rio Grande Valley region.

"Fortunately, we've done a really good job of gaining trust and credibility back with our patients," said VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System VA director Joe Perez.

The data showed it’s difficult for veterans to get certain types of care in some places.

In July, veterans at a Harlingen clinic waited an average of 13.5 days to see a specialist. The Sept. 1st numbers show improvement; veterans now wait at that clinic just more than 10 days.

Several Corpus Christi and Laredo veterans also faced waits longer than overall averages.

In July, veterans from Corpus Christi waited 10 days to get primary care. In Laredo, it took eight days to see a specialist.

"Our challenge here is having some of these specialties on board," Perez said.

Perez said they streamlined many processes to reduce wait times. He said veterans can directly opt into the Choice Program and choose an outside provider if wait times are clocking over a certain number of days.

If you're a new patient, expect to wait as many as 70 days to get specialty care at the VA.

The following is a breakdown of new patient wait times as of late September:

In McAllen, for primary care, you'll wait an average of 24 days, compared to 16 in the Harlingen clinic and just 12 at its other Treasure Hills location.

According to the records, when it comes to specialized care like gastroenterology, it takes 27 days. To see an Audiologist, you’ll have to take a 70-day wait.

Perez said that number is an exception.

"These are really good compared to what I've experienced out in the community,” Perez said. “From my own personal experience, if I could have something at 24 days that would be awesome."

Perez said wait times rise when patients miss or forget to cancel appointments. He also said wait times can be a testament to the quality of care they provide.

"We have a number of patients who choose to wait a little bit longer to be seen by us,” Perez said. “We do know their background, we can relate to them. A lot of it is by veteran's choice."

Veterans like Hilario Diaz make that choice every day. Diaz said he’s satisfied with his experiences at local regional VA clinics.

"Where in the Valley can you go to and you don't have to wait to see a doctor?” Diaz said.

He did not wait long for care.

"It's free. I haven't researched, but I would venture to say there's no other country in the world that does for veterans what the United States of America does,” Diaz said.

Army veteran Robert Grandstaff shared a different experience with the VA. He was injured while deployed.

“I need a lot of care, I have a lot of physical injuries, PTSD, chronic back pain,” Grandstaff said.

He said he waited long for his first VA appointment in 2013.

“When I first moved here, I asked for an appointment and they told me to wait three to four months,” Grandstaff said.

Grandstaff said his injuries force him to seek specialty care.

“Just like other veterans, I’m going to have to find other care,” Grandstaff said. “There needs to be some sort of better system, better accountability.”

Back in 2016, the local VA was scrutinized after an allegation of altering data to make it look like veterans were waiting less time for appointments.

Perez said it happened at clinics across the country, but it’s no longer an issue.

"It was a national initiative to do training and re-training of everybody that had the ability to schedule within our system and that continues annually,” Perez said.

The director admits wait times will constantly change. A new patient survey will be a crucial measuring stick to find out how satisfied or dissatisfied veterans are with their care.

If you want to learn more about wait times at VA clinics across the region, you can log on to the VA's website: https://www.accesstopwt.va.gov/

There are bi-monthly published reports on government websites which outline wait times and show conflicting information. Perez said the data online is always changing and it can make monthly published reports quickly outdated.

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