House Veterans' Affairs Holds Joint Subcommittee Hearing to Examine VA Outpatient Waiting Times
On Wednesday, Michael H. Michaud (D-ME), Chairman of the Health Subcommittee, and Harry E. Mitchell (D-ME), Chairman of the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee, held a joint hearing on waiting times for outpatient appointments in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The hearing focused on the performance measures, scheduling procedures and reporting systems used by VHA to assess the waiting times experienced by veterans attempting to schedule appointments.
Currently, the VA reports that 95 percent of outpatient appointments are scheduled within 30 days of the date requested by the patient, a metric the department established in their annual Performance and Accountability Report (PAR). The VA's Office of Inspector General (IG), however, questioned the accuracy of the data provided by the VA.
"When our veterans encounter long waiting times, their conditions go undiagnosed and serious diseases go untreated. This is no way to treat those who have honorably served our country," said Chairman Mitchell. "Until we have a clearer picture about waiting times, the VA can't improve the situation because we can't identify problem facilities or effectively allocate resources."
In the September 2007 report, Audit of the Veterans Health Administration's Outpatient Waiting Times, the IG found a 25% error rate in cases where the patients were reportedly seen within the 30-day window. The IG determined that standard scheduling procedures were not consistently followed and that electronic waiting lists, intended to be assurance for patients who could not be scheduled within the appropriate window, were not complete.
The VA refuted these findings, insisting that the IG's methodology resulted in the discrepancies found. Absent an indication that an alternate date was requested by the patient, the IG calculated waiting times from the date recommended by the medical provider to the actual appointment date. The VA calculated their figures based on patient preference, calculating the waiting time from the date requested to the actual appointment.
The VA also expressed concerns about the IG's recommendations regarding documentation. They insist that this would dramatically increase the workload for the medical care providers and staff, creating an undue burden on the system.
"We must work together to create a reporting system that is both accurate and agile, that creates auditable data through reasonable reporting requirements," said Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "Our goal is to make sure that VHA has the resources to provide timely health care for veterans."
Current VHA policy requires that all veterans requiring care for service-connected disabilities be scheduled within 30 days of their desired appointment dates. All other veterans must be scheduled for care within 120 days of desired dates or placed on electronic waiting lists.
"What we are really addressing is access," said Chairman Michaud. "It is imperative that we ensure our veterans have timely access to quality medical care when they need it. We know that access to health care generally improves treatment outcome and quality of life."
The opening statements of all the witnesses are available on the Committee website at: http://veterans.house.gov/hearings/hearing.aspx?NewsID=165.