New York VA facilities have few delays

(AP) -- Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics in New York are relatively good at seeing patients promptly, but veterans seeking care at facilities upstate are much more likely to face waits of a month or more.

Government data show that 36 of the 58 facilities in the state met the VA's timeliness goal -- which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days -- better than 99 percent of the time from September through February.

The Associated Press analyzed six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide and found that 2.8 percent of appointments were delayed at least a month. Nationally, the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has not decreased since Congress gave the VA $16.3 billion in August to hire more doctors, open new clinics and expand a program for veterans to obtain care outside the department's facilities.

The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

In New York, three of the facilities with the highest rates of delays of more than 30 days are in an area of upstate New York operated from the Syracuse VA Medical Center, where 4.5 percent of the appointments involved a delay of more than 30 days. The rate for the Watertown VA clinic in northern New York near Fort Drum was a state-high 5.2 percent.

"I think the providers there are good, just numbers-wise, they're overwhelmed," said veteran Robert Loughhead, who has been a patient at the Watertown clinic.

The Binghamton VA Clinic posted a 3.5 percent rate. The busy Syracuse center had 5,234 patients who waited more than 30 days. Of those patients, 802 waited more than 90 days.

VA officials in Syracuse said that patients with "an emergent condition" are seen immediately.

Steps taken to address patient care include hiring a new provider in the Binghamton clinic late last year, recruiting for an additional physician in Syracuse and moving and expanding the Watertown clinic under a new contract this month, according to a two-page emailed statement from the VA.

"We are constantly matching our staffing requirements to the needs of our patients and making adjustments both in terms of adding staff as well as expanding clinic hours during the evening and on weekends to meet the demand for appointments," officials said in the statement.

High volume did not always translate directly into longer waits.

Delays of more than a month were uncommon at New York Harbor VA-Brooklyn -- 0.5 percent -- even though the New York City facility had more appointments than Syracuse. The Western New York VA in Buffalo posted a 2.1 percent record over the period with a state-high number of completed appointments: 159,913.

Two clinics in New York had no delays greater than 30 days: Westport in northern New York and the Chapel Street clinic in Brooklyn.

Waits throughout the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast states are generally mild. Many of the delay-prone hospitals and clinics are clustered within a few hours' drive of each other in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA's sluggish planning process.

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