OKLAHOMA CITY — Wait times for appointments at most U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' medical facilities in Oklahoma are well below the national average, but two of the state's satellite clinics — in Tulsa and Vinita — have struggled to meet the health system's timeliness goal, according to government data reviewed by The Associated Press.
Of the more than 356,000 appointments completed at VA medical facilities in Oklahoma from last August through February, 6,782 were delayed more than 30 days, records show. That amounts to 1.9 percent of all appointments handled by the health system over those seven months, which is below the national rate of 2.8 percent.
"We just don't have the problems here in Oklahoma that some other places in the country have," said Pete Peterson, chairman of the Oklahoma Veterans Council, a group that includes representatives from 23 organizations that provide services to veterans. "We've had several town hall meetings ... and that's just not an issue that has come up before the council."
The percentage of appointments delayed by more than 30 days exceeded the national average at only two of Oklahoma's 13 VA facilities — Vinita, where 3.53 percent of appointments exceeded the 30-day mark, and Tulsa, where 3.32 percent missed it.
The delays at the clinic in Vinita, which is in far northeast Oklahoma, spiked during a two-month period when a doctor there retired, prompting the agency to send a replacement provider from the Tulsa clinic, VA spokeswoman Nita McClellan said.
"Because those patients did not know the new provider, we allowed for longer visits so the provider could get know the veterans and learn what their health care needs were," McClellan said.
The data shows once a new doctor was hired at the Vinita clinic, the number of appointments delayed more than 30 days dropped to just a few each month.
The numbers also show an increase in the number of appointment delays in Tulsa — a much larger clinic — during the months of January and February, which McClellan acknowledged was a combination of high turnover among primary care doctors and inclement weather that forced many appointments to be rescheduled.
Oklahoma had several rounds of wintry weather in February that included heavy snow, sleet and freezing rain.
Overall, the data shows that clinics in Oklahoma are providing timely care to veterans. The percentage of appointments delayed more than 30 days was less than 1 percent at six of the state's 13 facilities during the seven-month period.
"I know the VA hospitals have been getting some bad press, but the guys and gals that work there are working their tails off," said David Ames, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and sometimes gets medical care at the state's largest VA hospital in Oklahoma City. "I've never had a problem."
The Associated Press examined waiting times at 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics nationwide during the period from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28, the months where the most detailed data was available, to gauge any changes since a scandal over delays led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted lawmakers in August to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.
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