Details on why further investigation is needed at the Community Based Out-Patient clinic, which is near the WellStar Cobb Hospital off of the East-West Connector, were not disclosed in the audit released June 9 by the Veterans Health Administration.
The department performed the audit in response to an uproar from veterans two months ago in Phoenix that accused Veterans Affairs, which serves nearly 9 million people, of making veterans wait months to receive care, then attempting to cover up the long wait times by doctoring their records.
The Austell center was one of five centers in Georgia and 247 centers in the country in need of further review, according to the audit.
“The way the system is working is terrible,” said David Pipes, the state adjutant for veterans at the Veterans of Foreign Wars State Headquarters. “They need to take care of our veterans. They need to be seen.”
Representatives from local VFW posts in Marietta and Acworth declined to comment on the situation, saying the state office did not permit them to speak.
Patients in the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur on Clairmont Road waited an average of 64 days for a primary care doctor, 53 days for a specialist and 27 days for a mental health professional, according to the audit.
The audit did not specify the length of wait times at the Smyrna/Austell center.
In addition, the audit of Veterans Affairs found employees were manipulating appointment schedule records to hide the long wait times veterans were experiencing.
“Findings indicate that in some cases, pressures were placed on schedulers to utilize inappropriate practices in order to make waiting times appear more favorable,” the audit stated.
It was the department’s stated goal to see all new patients within 14 days, but veterans said that wasn’t being met.
“Meeting a 14-day wait-time performance target for new appointments was simply not attainable,” the audit stated.
More veterans, longer lines
Multiple veterans from the Cobb area who visit the Austell center said they have seen an uptick in visitors to VA centers, which could cause longer wait times.
Nory Lugo, a hospital corpsman in the Navy in 2001 who works at the Center for Children and Young Adults and lives in Powder Springs, said more veterans have returned home from the military since the dwindling down of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“There are a lot of us veterans now,” Lugo said.
Powder Springs resident Bobby Daniels said he has been to both the Atlanta and the Austell centers and has seen the best and the worst of both.
He said things were worse in the 1990s when he tried to make an appointment to see a doctor. “It would take me at least two months to make an appointment — that’s a problem.”
And the wait didn’t end there, he said.
“Once you got there, it took four hours to see a doctor,” said Daniels, an Air Force veteran. “You would get there for an 8 a.m. appointment, and you’d be lucky if you got out by 1 p.m. They’d go to lunch and come back before they saw you.”
But Daniels said wait times aren’t as bad now.
“The VA has improved a lot,” Daniels said. “Now, they have these signs up in the waiting room that say if you haven’t seen a doctor in 20 minutes, come up and see us.”
Daniels said the cause of the wait times is a correlation of a rise in patients without a rise in doctors at each center.
“They need more physicians,” he said.
According to a health care inspection by the Office of the VA Inspector General, the number of patients staying in the hospital to receive treatment in the Atlanta location rose from 651 in 2009 to 993 in 2010.
Pipes said he thinks the veterans who do get to see doctors at the VA centers receive good care.
“The care that they get is outstanding. It’s not the care, it’s not the doctors, it’s just the wait time,” Pipes said.
In conjunction with the overpopulation of some VA centers that veterans have reported, some centers may not have enough people to care for veterans.
“Staffing challenges were identified in small (centers), especially where there were small counts of providers or administrative support,” the audit stated.
Retired veteran David Russ of Smyrna, who was in the Navy on active duty during the Vietnam War, said he has heard certain types of care are highly requested, so sometimes there isn’t enough room for all the patients, causing long wait times. For instance, the dermatology services Emory Hospital offers are often overbooked, he said.
“Because all of us old guys stayed out in the sun too long,” Russ said.
Response to outcry
In response to the audit, the Atlanta VA Medical Center’s public affairs officer Gregory Kendall said in a statement there are plans to build a new center in Cobb County.
This new center has not been approved by the state yet, so Kendall said its location and size have not been decided.
Plans are also in progress for new VA medical centers in Decatur and in Newton, Pike and Pickens counties, Kendall said.
“The current wait time for new patients is unacceptable and we are taking several actions to improve access,” Kendall.
In addition, the Atlanta location is increasing the number of appointments and hiring new staff as needed.
But, veterans say these new medical centers are something they have been needing for years.
“I just think it’s overpopulated,” said Alfred McAfee Jr., a retired Marietta man who served in the Army in the Vietnam War and uses the Atlanta VA center. “I think they need to build some more facilities.”
National effects of controversy
The outcry against the VA has led to national efforts to correct the system.
The head of the VA, Eric Shinseki, resigned May 30.
And now, Congress is in the process of passing legislation that would require the VA to pay for veterans to receive care from private medical facilities if they are not seen at a VA center on time, according to the Associated Press.
But Pipes said this won’t fix the problems veterans are experiencing because it doesn’t reform the system.
“I don’t think that’s the answer. I think that’s the quick fix, which is good,” Pipes said. “If the VA can’t afford to see (veterans), then yes, they need to pay for (veterans) to get the care that they deserve.”