More than a year after revelations that sick veterans were forced to wait months for treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs clinics, the primary cause of understaffing at the facilities persists across the county, and Modesto is no exception.
The wait time at the Modesto VA clinic on Oakdale Road for a patient without an urgent need is more than three months, said VA spokesman Michael Hill-Jackson.
Vietnam veteran Ed Bringazi said he called the clinic after receiving a notice in the mail for an annual appointment. But when he called to schedule it he was told the clinic isn’t accepting new patients – even though he’s already enrolled – and that he would have to go to the Stockton clinic.
Hill-Jackson said no one should have told Bringazi he can’t get an appointment in Modesto. It’s true, though, that Modesto patients are being referred to Stockton and Livermore due to a physician shortage, Hill-Jackson said.
“It is much faster if they are willing to be seen at Stockton or Livermore,” he said. “But a lot of times people want to wait for their own doctor.”
The Modesto clinic has lost three doctors in the past year.
“We get doctors that just find new opportunities, especially in that area,” Hill-Jackson said. “Whenever that happens, we try to adjust to make sure we can handle the load.”
Staff is recruiting physicians to work at the Modesto clinic, Hill-Jackson said. Before hiring a doctor last week, it was operating with only five doctors and still needs to hire at least two or three more to meet the needs of Modesto area patients and get appointment wait times below 30 days.
Under a law passed last year, VA patients expecting a wait longer than 30 days should be able to see a private-sector physician at the department’s expense. The Choice Program allows veterans to seek care elsewhere if they cannot get an appointment at a VA clinic within 30 days of their preferred date or when considered medically necessary.
News reports and a subsequent internal investigation by Veterans Affairs revealed last year that patients were getting sicker and in some cases died while waiting to be seen at their local clinics. CNN broke the story that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care in Phoenix, Ariz.
The Department of Veterans Affairs implemented major reform as a results to bring the wait-time for non-emergency appointments down to 30 days, but there has been little improvement, according to a seven-month analysis by The Associated Press.
One in 36 patient visits at VA clinics nationwide still include a delay of more than a month, according to the AP report released in April.
During an eight-month period this year, the percentage of patients at the Modesto clinic waiting more than a month for an appointment steadily increased, from 5.17 percent in February to 17.37 percent in September, according to data released by the VA. It decreased to 14.87 percent in mid-October but went has gone back to 17.5 percent as of Thursday.
The wait-time data for Modesto includes patients who were referred to the other clinics or seen in the private sector through the Choice Program.
“We work to use all available resources to minimize the wait times as much as possible,” Hill-Jackson said.
He said the Modesto VA is assisting patients by providing shuttle services from Modesto to Livermore or Stockton or reimbursing veterans who must travel farther for care.
Since September, the Modesto VA Clinic has had the longest wait times in the Palo Alto Health Care System, which encompasses clinics in the Bay Area and as far east as Sonora and west as Monterey.
Bringazi said he wasn’t concerned about the wait because he only goes to the clinic to be seen for his diabetes, for which he receives disability because of exposure to Agent Orange. He said he has plenty of diabetes medication and has private insurance for all his other health needs.
Hill-Jackson said he isn’t aware of patients with urgent matters being made to wait. Until staffing levels increase, he said, patients will be triaged and scheduled for appointments based on their needs.