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Long waits for VA care less of a problem in Kansas than elsewhere, although problems persist

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KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Fewer Kansas veterans are experiencing long waits for care at VA hospitals and clinics than their counterparts in many other states, but dozens waited more than 90 days for care and delays actually jumped in the first two months of this year.

The federal government approved a $16.3 billion overhaul of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' health system last August, after a scandal over delays and attempts to cover them led to the May resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

An Associated Press review of government data shows that from September through February, 1.8 percent of 259,110 appointments at Kansas' three VA medical centers and 16 community-based outpatient clinics failed to meet the VA system's timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days. The national average was 2.8 percent.

In January and February — the last two months for which data were analyzed — Kansas' VA health providers averaged completing 1,159 appointments that didn't meet the 30-day goal, which was nearly double the monthly average for the period spanning September through December. The reasons for the January and February spikes weren't clear, and the national rate also was higher then.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican, called the findings "troublesome." He said he doesn't think the VA has taken full advantage of a provision in last summer's law that allows veterans to seek treatment from private health care providers in some circumstances.

"The result of that effort should be that the backlog that veterans are experiencing is declining," said Moran, adding that he continues hearing from concerned veterans after the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. "The VA is going out of its way to make implementation of the Choice Act difficult for veterans instead of bending over backward to meet the veterans' needs."

Larry Mac Intire, 68, was a swift boat sailor in Vietnam and is still struggling to receive care closer to his home in the western Kansas town of Natoma for inoperable prostate cancer and drug side effects that have weakened his bones. He said he had to complain to Moran's staff before he was allowed in December to see a private doctor in Hays instead of driving 3 ½ hours to the VA hospital in Wichita.

"It's been hell," he said. "It is something you have to worry about and think about all the time."

But Bruce Fischbach, state commander of the Kansas Veterans of Foreign Wars, said its representatives are hearing fewer complaints.

"With the increased focus on the VA that has come to light since the scandal last year, yeah it is much better," he said.

From September through February, Kansas had 221 completed appointments in which the waits were more than 90 days. The Eastern Kansas VA-Colmery-O'Neil in Topeka had 102, 93 were at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita, 17 were at the Eastern Kansas VA-Dwight D. Eisenhower in Leavenworth, three were at the Paola clinic, two were at the Junction City clinic and the clinics in Chanute, Emporia, Fort Scott and Salina each had one such appointment.

The Wichita hospital featured in the national scandal, as it was among several U.S. facilities that maintained secretive wait lists meant to conceal the actual wait times many veterans had endured.

Dr. James Parker, interim chief of staff at the Wichita facility, said he was encouraged because federal money is paying for more than 50 new positions there. But he noted that among the more than 30 people who had been hired or accepted offers, only about half had started because of the extensive vetting process.

"I believe the future holds good things," he said. Overall, 2.3 percent of the 90,425 appointments at the Wichita hospital were delayed longer than 30 days over the six months examined.

Elsewhere, the percentage of delayed appointments was 8.4 percent at the Emporia clinic, 3.3 percent at the Garnett clinic, 2.2 percent at the Topeka hospital, 1.7 percent at the Fort Scott clinic, 1.5 percent at the Seneca clinic, 1.4 percent at the Salina and Chanute clinics and 1.1 percent at the Leavenworth hospital. Less than 1 percent of appointments were delayed at the 10 other facilities.

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