Room for improvement at S.C. VA hospital

It appears that the Veterans Affairs hospital in Columbia could take some cues from its sister facility in Charleston. While the Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Centeer in Columbia has failed to meet the VA’s timeliness standard for seeing patients, the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston has come much closer to meeting the standard and keeping up with rising demand.

Government data reviewed by The Associated Press found that the Columbia hospital failed to meet the timeliness standard calling for patients to be seen within 30 days. About a quarter of its appointments involved a wait for more than 61 days. The number of appointments failing to meet the standard was four times more than that at the Charleston hospital.

The federal scrutiny of its VA centers is the result of the national scandal last year regarding long wait times. That scandal resulted in the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted Congress to pass reform legislation.

The federal review found that, nationally, the number of veterans waiting more than a month for care hasn’t declined, and the number of appointments that take more than 90 days to schedule has nearly doubled. But it also found that the facilities having the most trouble meeting the standards were clustered in the Southeast, while dealys in other parts of the country were relatively rare.

This problem does not rise to the level of the scandal that prompted the changes. Under Shinseki, not only did patients often have to wait for an interminable amount of time to get help, but VA workers also were discovered to have altered records to cover up the delays.

In some cases, families suspected that delayed treatment might have contributed to the deaths of loved ones. Even patients who were described as suicidal often could have trouble getting access to medical help.

Since then, $16.3 billion in federal money has been pumped into the system to improve service. And monitoring of performance has greatly improved.

Dorn has worked to keep up with demand, hiring 39 physicians, 88 registered nurses and 40 medical clerks since last May. But the number of veteran patients has been growing from 5 to 7 percent every year.

In Charleston, according to officials there, the hospital starts looking for more doctors once those on staff get near 80 percent of their case load limit. Charleston officials also concede that attracting doctors to Charleston, with its historic charm and mild weather, is easier to do than at some other facilities.

It appears that delays no longer pose a serious threat to patients’ health. The delays are mostly in the areas such as dental work, rehabilitation, mental health and optometry.

Nonetheless, all centers should meet the standards. Veteran patients shouldn’t have to wait more than a month for an appointment.

The solution is apparent: hire the doctors, nurses and other personnel needed to meet demand. And Congress needs to continue to provide the money where needed.

While the system appears to be running more smoothly, there is room for improvement. We owe it to our service members to do better.

In summary

While the VA medical system appears to be improving, patients at many facilities still are waiting too long to get medical help.