Long waits for medical care persist for thousands of veterans at Illinois VA hospitals despite efforts to hire more doctors, open more clinics and allow some patients to instead see private practice physicians.
An Associated Press review of government data in the wake of last year's national waiting time scandal found that nearly 20,000 medical appointments completed at the state's five major Department of Veterans Affairs' medical centers from September through February failed to meet the health system's timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days.
Sixty-one percent of those delayed appointments were scheduled at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital outside of Chicago, where the hospital's long-time director retired in October amid allegations of misconduct that Hines officials say were not substantiated during later VA inquiries.
Officials plan to add 168 new positions to Hines' medical staff over the next two years and another two dozen support workers as part of a $24 million infusion from the VA, said Dr. Jack Bulmash, its chief of staff. They've expanded evening and weekend hours at specialty care clinics and are broadening patient access to telemedicine.
But the gaps persist, with 2,795 appointments delayed between two and three months during the AP review period.
"We're certainly aware that we have challenges in certain areas to provide (timely) access," Bulmash said. But he and other Hines administrators emphasized that 94 percent of appointments meet the new federal guidelines, while those that don't meet the guidelines generally involve routine care, not medical emergencies.
"Care that is needed right now is provided right now," he said.
The AP examined waiting times at 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics nationwide to gauge the impact of federal changes since a scandal over delays and cover-up attempts led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. In August, Congress gave the VA an additional $16.3 billion to attack the problem.
The VA introduced a new method for measuring wait times at the end of last summer, making comparison of previously released wait times with current statistics difficult.
Illinois' other four VA medical centers have fared better with delayed patient care. Both the Jesse Brown Center in Chicago and the Marion VA hospital hovered slightly below the national average of 2.8 percent of appointments completed later than 30 days. The VA Illiana hospital in Danville and the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Center in North Chicago both outpace the national average. Eight of the state's 25 outpatient clinics met the VA's timeliness standard better than 99 percent of the time, including those in Charleston, Evanston, McHenry, Rockford and Carbondale, where just six appointments out of nearly 3,000 weren't completed in time.
Retired Marine Jim Bivens of Caseyville, a 79-year-old Korean War veteran and commander of the local VFW chapter, said the wide disparities in on-time performance can frustrate veterans who may have favorable experiences at one VA facility and difficulties elsewhere.
"The problem is there's no consistency. It depends on where you go," said Bivens, characterizing the waits for treatment by his fellow veterans, not his own. "Maybe this new process will address it. I hope so."
Dr. Jeffrey Ryan, associate chief of staff at the Jesse Brown center, said the sprawling health care system must continue working to regain the trust of veterans who remain disillusioned after the 2014 report that dozens of veterans died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital amid the use of secret waiting lists tied to administrator bonus payments.
"It's going to take time to win it back," he said. "We have to prove it one veteran at a time."
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