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Problems remain at Phoenix VA hospital after scandal; thousands of appointments face delays

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TUCSON, Arizona — Iraq War veteran Brian Gibbs kept his cool the first time he drove for over an hour to the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital, only to be told that his appointment had been cancelled because his doctor was out sick.

The second time it happened, about a month later, there were choice words.

Gibbs finally saw a doctor on Feb. 16, more than two months after his first attempt. "Everything with me seems to take longer, and I don't get any answers," said Gibbs, who suffers from a blood clot disorder.

Like many military veterans, Gibbs has experienced extraordinarily long wait times to see physicians at VA facilities, often for life-threatening illnesses. In Phoenix, the epicenter of a national scandal that broke last year after whistleblowers revealed long wait times and falsified records to cover up the delays, problems remain.

More than 250,000 appointments were completed at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affair Medical Center in Phoenix between September and February, and over 14,000 of those appointments, or 5.7 percent, faced delays of 31 days or longer. The Associated Press gathered waiting times from VA centers all over the country to determine the agency's progress in reducing wait times after it plowed billions of dollars into reforms across the system.

The VA's timeliness goal calls for patients to be seen in 30 days or sooner. Nationally, 2.8 percent of appointments were subject to longer delays, meaning Arizona's biggest VA hospital fared worse than the national average.

The Cottonwood VA Clinic had the worst wait times in the state. More than 10 percent of the appointments scheduled at that clinic have been delayed 31 days or longer, the records show. A spokeswoman said the VA is adding additional providers, including a physician, nurse and licensed practical nurse, to the Cottonwood Clinic to address long wait times. The VA is in the process of recruiting and expects to have the new staff in place in the Fall.

It's not possible to compare the numbers to previous months because the VA changed the way it calculates the data.

The VA overhauled its Phoenix operation after reports of falsified waiting lists surfaced there last year, bringing national attention to the issue. Two administrators remain on paid leave, while former director Sharon Helman lost her job. Helman's lawyer said her client had been "scapegoated to appease Congress," and an administrative judge determined on an appeal that the VA didn't have grounds to fire her over wait times or falsified records. However, he found her at fault for accepting gifts from a health care group.

In a fact sheet released last month to coincide with President Barack Obama's visit to the Phoenix VA, officials said they had made great progress in Arizona, hiring hundreds of new employees and accelerating care for thousands of veterans who were identified as being on the secret wait list last year. The government has also created a new "Choice" program that allows vets to use outside physicians when they live too far or have had to wait too long for a VA center to see them.

"While more work remains, VA has expanded access to care for Veterans in Phoenix and across the country, both in VA facilities and in their communities since May 2014," officials wrote.

But some critics say there haven't been enough changes in Phoenix to create better care. Sam Foote, the now-retired doctor who revealed the problems in Phoenix, says things won't really change until all employees associated with last year's scandal are gone.

"They keep saying they've hired more people, but you always have to ask, 'What is the net gain? What is the net change?'" he said.

Dan Caldwell, legislative director for Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group, is skeptical of the VA's reported wait times and said it's still possible that the agency is tinkering with figures.

He said that while some things have improved, many veterans still say they aren't getting adequate care. He said he doesn't think the Phoenix VA is using the "Choice" program correctly.

"Anecdotally, what we hear is the VA is more responsive," Caldwell said. "They seem to come across as more caring, and they seem to be acting quicker to try to resolve problems, but the same processes and some of the same structural issues, or same cultural issues, are still present within the VA system at large."

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