Last spring, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was embroiled in a scandal over long wait times at its clinics around the country.
Members of Congress criticized the VA and ultimately authorized more funding for the agency to help deal with the problem.
Some of the longest wait times in the country were right here in the Pacific Northwest.
A report last April from the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found Portland VA clinics had some of the longest wait times in the country.
Just ask Thomas Brown: “I remember dealing with some long wait times,” he said.
Brown is a volunteer with the National Association for Black Veterans, or NABVETS. He helps fellow vets wade through the daunting bureaucracy of the VA to get their benefits.
Brown said just three years ago the wait times at Portland VA clinics were much worse.
“I’d have a veteran that would say, ‘Well hey, they say I’m not going to get a primary care doctor for three to four, five months.’ I’d tell them, ‘Hey, let’s do it this way. There’s a work-around.’”
That work-around, Brown said, was to tell people to go to the emergency room.
‘Now the second time you go to emergency they’re probably going to throw you off on somebody as your primary care,” said Brown. “So that’s going to speed it up. So that’s how we’d do that work-around. They’d get that primary care and it wouldn’t take three months.”
According to last April’s report, the Portland VA Health Care System ranked as one of the worst. It was 125 out of 128 VA centers for primary care wait times. That ranking encompasses facilities throughout the Portland metro area, as well as Salem, Bend, Newport, among other places.
Joanne Krumberger, the director of the Portland VA, took over last May. She said the long wait times were because the center didn’t have enough staff.
“This was specifically related to the loss of over 25 providers within a very short time frame,” she said.
According to data from the VA, last May new patients seeking primary care at Portland VA clinics were waiting 80 days on average for an appointment. And patients seeking specialty care were waiting more than 60 days on average.
Now, the VA’s goal is to get patients an appointment within 30 days.
Beyond the sudden loss in caregivers, Krumberger said, Portland has an added challenge: It’s the fastest growing VA of its kind in the country.
“We’re growing at 240 new veterans a week on average seeking our care,” she said.
The focus from news organizations and Congress “accelerated” plans that were already in place to help reduce wait times, she said. The agency also recruited for the open jobs and added temporary physicians.
“We actually had physicians who volunteered all summer,” said Krumberger. “They were working Saturdays. It was an all out effort.”
As of January, the clinic’s average wait time dropped to 12 days for a patient to get a primary care appointment and about 10 days for an appointment with a specialist.
Veterans say the Portland VA has improved under Krumberger’s tenure.
“She’s been in here maybe nine months and she’s really cut down on the wait time that we were experiencing beforehand,” said Leneld Brown, the founder of the Portland chapter of NABVETS.
“The VA hospital has made a 180 degree turn, really, in their wait time,” he said.
Thomas Brown agrees, but says the care could be even better if the VA had more people.
“What I think their biggest issue is, is staffing. I don’t think they have enough people to do the job they’re trying to do,” he said. “We’re getting involved in all these skirmishes around the world. We gotta put more people in place to deal with these broken bodies that return. I mean you can’t just have them lining up outside the door not able to get in, so I think the VA staffing needs to be increased.”
Last August, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.
Among other things, it aimed to address wait times at VA clinics around the country.
The Portland VA received an additional $34 million to hire more than 200 caregivers at its clinics. It also provides money for veterans to go outside the VA system to get care, under certain circumstances.
Despite the improvement in wait times, the VA’s Krumberger said there are still long wait times for certain specialties.
She said that’s in part because of the high demand, but also because there’s a shortage of providers.
“You talk to anyone in my position in the private sector, they’ll say that they’re challenged in filling vacancies,” she said.
Krumberger said that’s a problem that’s going to get harder to solve in the future.