New VA Clinic, Not a Moment Too Soon

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) announced today the establishment of a new community-based Veterans Administration health care clinic in Burlington that is expected to serve 10,000 Colorado veterans.

“This is a great victory for the veterans of eastern Colorado,” said Senator Salazar. “After serving our Nation with honor and distinction, we owe our veterans the respect of providing real access to the health care they were promised. This is an important piece of keeping that promise.”

Salazar’s announcement comes on the heels of increased criticism of long waits for appointment scheduling, lack of access to care for rural veterans, and calls for the VA to contract with private health care providers, according to an article in CQ HealthBeat News.

A House panel Thursday began sifting through a variety of bills to improve medical care for veterans, with access to treatment in rural areas among the top concerns addressed by the stack of proposals.

Dominating the hearing by the House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee were stories of rural veterans spending entire days routinely traveling hundreds of miles to the briefest of appointments, but veterans’ groups voiced ambivalence about how lawmakers would address the problem.

The subcommittee listened to more than half a dozen House members pitch their bills for improving veterans’ care, a number of which call for increased contracting by the Veterans Health Administration at the Department of Veterans Affairs with local providers to treat veterans who live in areas distant from VA facilities.

But some veterans’ lobbyists expressed fear that broader contracting to provide more timely and convenient treatment would undermine the VA’s system for directly providing care itself through its own hospitals and clinics.

Problems with long waits for appointments and resource shortages are nothing new to veterans in Colorado’s fourth congressional district.

The Fort Collins outpatient clinic is plagued with shortages – four exam rooms and one patient room served 2,776 patients according to an investigative story published in the Greeley Tribune last week.

Due to the space constraints, nurses were routinely forced to assess patients in the hallway, performing blood pressure checks and asking routine questions when no rooms were available, Birmingham said. Although this was a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the nurses were also under pressure not to reschedule appointments and to see as many patients as possible.

The Fort Collins clinic is under the auspice of the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Spokesman Andrew Ruben said that the center does the best it can with the resources available and is constantly assessing whether outpatient clinics need more space or staff. Ruben recognized that the clinics are busy, but said a committee is due to make recommendations about needs by October.

“The clinics are pretty much approaching their full capacity. That’s why we’ve got that committee in place now to make sure we are aware of the workload data,” Ruben said.

Dan Frantz, clinical specialist in psychiatric nursing in Greeley, lauds the care veterans receive at his clinic, but said of course he’d like more resources. “More days than not, every room is double booked,” he said. “Expanding this clinic would make a difference in terms of waits.”

Also cited in the Tribune story was a 2005 audit by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Veterans Affairs that found serious flaws in a national survey of the VA’s self-reported scheduling statistics and significant backlogs:

…41 percent of the schedulers in the eight facilities scrutinized were directed by supervisors to enter information incorrectly. Because of this, the VA numbers looked far better than reality when the statistical sample was applied nationally. While only 65 percent of patients were truly seen in 30 days, the VA reported 81 percent. Further, the average waiting time was actually 44 percent higher than reported by the VA when errors were corrected, according to the audit.

The new clinic in Burlington will join 11 other community-based clinics in Colorado, two VA hospitals and assortment of support services, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Wendy Norris

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