State lawmakers preparing to hear from veterans about excessive wait times at VA clinics have new ammunition: In a new report, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that Texas medical facilities have some of the longest patient wait times in the nation.
Senators will meet in Houston on Thursday to ask veterans about wait times and assess ways in which the state can help. With the new report, lawmakers will go into the Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee hearing knowing that clinics in Harlingen, El Paso, Dallas and Amarillo are among the 10 clinics with the longest average wait times in the country. Several other Texas clinics have been designated as needing “further review” of their scheduling practices.
"Texas veterans have given so much for us, so I’m profoundly disappointed to learn that some of the most problematic VA hospitals and clinics are right here in Texas," said the committee's chairwoman, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.
As part of a nationwide investigation, the VA has been auditing the scheduling practices at its Texas medical facilities, including six medical centers, 20 outpatient clinics and 36 community-based outpatient clinics that fall under the VA’s purview.
The audits come on the heels of allegations made by several whistleblowers that staffers at federal clinics were instructed to manipulate scheduling documents to falsely report shorter wait times for veterans seeking medical services.
In a report released Monday, the VA determined that its clinic in Harlingen may be among the most problematic in the country. When it comes to serving new patients seeking specialty care, that clinic has an average wait time of 145 days — the worst in the nation.
New patients seeking primary care at the clinic wait an average of 85 days, the second-longest wait in the nation, and patients seeking mental health services usually wait 55 days, the eighth-longest wait time.
“I am horrified by reports that our veterans in the Valley are waiting months for appropriate health care,” state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said in a statement, adding that the wait times are further proof that the region needs a “full-fledged” VA hospital in the Rio Grande Valley to ensure that the 100,000 veterans living in the area receive “appropriate specialty doctor care in a timely manner.”
Hugo Martinez, public affairs officer for the Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, which includes the Harlingen clinic, said the problems at the clinic were part of “systemic issues” in the VA’s scheduling practices. He added that the clinic has been calling to hasten care for veterans who have been waiting more than 90 days for appointments with specialists. When earlier appointments at the clinic are not available, the VA has tried to refer them to specialists outside the system, he said.
Martinez said the longest wait times are for veterans with appointments to see physicians specializing in ophthalmology, optometry and audiology.
Harlingen is among the Texas facilities that have been identified as sites that will receive further review. VA facilities in San Antonio, Temple, Dallas, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, McAllen and Austin have also been designated for additional review.
In May, the VA had completed its audit of several Texas facilities, including the Harlingen and Dallas clinics, but officials who oversee those facilities were not informed about any issues that had been discovered through the audits, according to Jessica Jacobsen, a deputy director for public affairs in the VA's regional office in Dallas.
With the new report, Jacobsen said further review of VA facilities in Texas “will be necessary to determine the extent of issues related to scheduling and access management practices.”
Ahead of the hearing on Thursday, committee members invited Georgia Hernandez — the daughter of Vietnam War veteran George Barraza, who died waiting for a doctor's appoint at a VA clinic in Houston — to testify. And they will also open the hearing to public testimony from veterans groups.
The state is limited in what it can do at federal facilities because it cannot provide additional medical professionals to ease the high patient-to-doctor ratio in the VA medical facilities. But the VA has directed its clinics to refer veterans to medical professionals who work outside of federal facilities through its “Accelerating Access to Care” initiative — something Texas physicians have been urging the Obama administration to allow in order to help reduce wait times.
Officials at the Texas Veterans Commission will also testify before the committee about the progress made by the “strike force team,” which was created in 2012 in response to a massive backlog in federal disability claims for Texas veterans.
Lawmakers have proposed expanding that team to include an oversight group — separate from the VA — that could serve as a watchdog for Texas veterans.
Under that proposal, the state would facilitate a new hotline or website for veterans seeking assistance with the medical services they are receiving through the VA. The team would also help create a database to collect veterans’ complaints, which would assist in determining which facilities are lagging in its services.