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EPVAHCS report shows some patients wait months for care, new Choice Program may help

A review by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found some patients have to wait months for Veterans Affairs health care appointments in El Paso.

The review was done at the request of Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). It reveals the longest average wait time at the El Paso VA Health Care System is for cardiology patients at 73.2 days, with the shortest wait being those needing primary care, at 7.2 days. But a new program may help those seeking medical care get it a lot sooner.

“We’ve heard a lot of cases of veterans opting out of the VA Health Care System,” O’Rourke said. “They’ve said, ‘I waited six months for an appointment and then I had that appointment canceled or rescheduled for another three or six months down the line. I give up. I’m just going to a private provider that’s on my insurance or my spouse’s insurance.’ That’s wrong because that veteran literally put their life on the line for this country.”

O’Rourke said he’s not satisfied with the current state of the VA health care system, but he believes it’s making progress.

“We’re acknowledging now that the VA just can not get the job done for every veteran. For those who can’t be seen, we want to make sure they have a choice to be seen somewhere else in the community at large,” O’Rourke said. He hopes the new Veterans Choice Program helps provide better access to care.

The OIG report states there are 41,000 veterans enrolled and 30,000 actually receiving care at El Paso facilities. Many of them come from as far as Las Cruces, N.M., or Marfa, Texas, for care. Choice cards are currently being sent out to qualifying veterans who live more than 40 miles away from a VA medical facility or are told they need to wait more than 30 days for a medical appointment. The cards allow veterans to receive care at a non-VA facility.

“You talk about a slap in the face to the veterans,” U.S. Army veteran Jeff Witoszczak said. “You get promised all this stuff when you get back home. You gotta go through an arm and a leg to get it. You gotta go through months, and even years to get it and some don’t even get it.” He said he’s not disappointed with the quality of care at the VA. Instead, he’s angry at the administration.

“If you can’t get in or if you’re given the runaround at the VA, really important that you call me,” O’Rourke said. “It shouldn’t have to be that way, but we are very effective at being able to get past the bureaucracy, cut through the red tape, and make sure that veterans have access to the care that they need and the benefits that they’ve earned.” The phone number to O’Rourke’s office is 915-541-1400.

ABC-7 learned University Medical Center and its neighborhood health care centers are participating in the Choice Program through referrals from a company called TriWest Healthcare Alliance.

The VAOIG report reveals the longest wait times are for the cardiology, urology and orthopedic clinics in El Paso. The shortest are in the psychiatry, psychology and primary care clinics. Eleven recommendations, most of them relating to provider productivity, were given to the new director, Peter Dancy. Ten of those recommendations are already being worked on, with a goal completion date set at June 30, 2015.

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