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Utah veterans face significant delays receiving health care, despite reforms after scandal

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SALT LAKE CITY — The number of military veterans facing long waits for medical care at Veterans Affairs facilities in Utah has barely budged since the summer, even after Congress gave the department an additional $16.3 billion to hire more doctors, open new facilities and expand the number of patients approved for treatment outside the VA system.

A little more than 6,500 medical appointments completed at the George E. Wahlen Medical Center in Salt Lake City between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28 failed to meet the VA's timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days, according to government data reviewed by The Associated Press. That means about 1 in 20 patient visits involved a wait of a month or more, compared to a national average of 1 in 36.

Long waits were also abnormally common at the VA clinic in West Valley City. A little more than 1 in 11 appointments were delayed by a month or more, placing the facility among the 25 worst in the country for long wait times for health care.

The AP reviewed six months of medical appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics to identify the facilities struggling the most with long waits and see how things might have improved since last year's scandal over long wait times and attempts to cover them up.

The analysis showed that, nationally, the number of delayed appointments hasn't dropped, while the number of patients waiting more than 90 days for care has nearly doubled.

Of the six VA facilities in Utah, four did worse than the national average on meeting the health system's goal of seeing patients within 30 days.

Salt Lake VA officials say that's partly because the system has been under strain from a large influx of new veterans needing care.

"We've had over a decade of war, and veterans are coming home and needing our care," said Jill Atwood, a spokeswoman for the VA system based Salt Lake City. That's especially true in the West Valley clinic, said Tom Kelley, an administrator who oversees scheduling for the VA hospital in Salt Lake City.

"We're just seeing a lot of new patients that are wanting to be seen in West Valley," he said. More of those veterans are also willing to wait for an appointment rather than go to a doctor outside the system, he said.

Under a law passed in August, vets can be seen by a non-VA doctor if they face long delays.

The Utah-based system is one of the more rural in the country, Atwood said. While that can mean extra challenges to getting quick care, data released to The AP shows shorter wait times at the state's far-flung facilities.

In the eastern Utah town of Roosevelt, less than 1 percent of appointments were delayed 31 days or more, the smallest facility percentage in the state over the time period examined by the AP. That could be because those more rural clinics have more room to expand, while the larger, more urban locations have space constraints, said Bart Lee, director of the health administration services department.

To help deal with that, authorities are doubling the size of the primary care clinic and expect to be done in May, Atwood said. In West Valley, they've recently hired one new doctor and are looking for another. Overall, the Utah-based system has added 200 new employees into the system over the last year.

Army veteran Dan Conley of West Valley City said it's not unusual to wait weeks for an urgent care appointment, or months to see a specialist. He said that when he tore his rotator cuff in 2011, it took more than three years to get fixed.

"It was extremely frustrating," said Conely, a 42-year-old master's degree student.

Minor ailments like sinus infections can snowball into emergency room visits before there's an open appointment, he said.

"I have an option of being put on a short-term care appointment two to six weeks out or go to the ER," he said.

But Conley said he's also been happy with VA care, including cognitive therapy he needs after suffered a traumatic brain injury and other problems after falling from a dump truck during preparations to enter Iraq in 2005.


AP writer David B. Caruso contributed to this report.

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