HONOLULU — Hawaii had the longest wait time in the nation for veterans to get their first appointment with a primary care physician, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
New patients in Hawaii wait an average of 145 days to get an appointment at the Spark M. Matsunaga VA Medical Center and its affiliated clinics on neighbor islands, according to the data. Nationwide, the VA had set a goal of 14 days.
The delays are by far the worst in the U.S. At the facility with the second-longest wait time, a VA hospital in San Antonio, Texas, the average wait was 85 days.
Wayne Pfeffer, director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, said the VA center is hiring additional clerks and nurses to give doctors more time to treat patients. They also plan to provide more evening hours and Saturday clinics, he said.
“Our goal is to have no waiting list,” Pfeffer said. “We’re trying to reduce our waiting time. We’re hoping that as the new releases come out, we’re looking better and better.”
The findings are part of the first nationwide look at the VA system after reports emerged two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at an Arizona VA center.
The audit, carried out at 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics around the country, found long wait times for patients seeking their first appointments for both primary-care doctors and specialists.
The review also indicated that 13 percent of schedulers reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment schedules to make patient waits appear shorter.
Hawaii resident Bryan Trumbower, a 32-year-old Army veteran, said he waited about six months for his first appointment with a primary care physician at the VA center.
“They tell you that when you sign up: ‘It will be six months,’” Trumbower said.
Pfeffer said he did not know for sure whether the staff was telling patients it would be a six-month wait.
“For the most part, we’re better than six months, but we try to give a realistic timeframe so they know what to expect,” Pfeffer said. “We’re working diligently to bring that down.”
Wait times at the Hawaii center are better for established patients. Excluding new patients, just 3 percent of Hawaii veterans waited more than 30 days for an appointment.
But about a year ago, Trumbower was diagnosed with a sinus infection but had to wait five weeks to see a specialist for further treatment. It took three weeks of phone calls to get an appointment scheduled, and then there was a two-week wait for an appointment, Trumbower said.
“There’s people out there dying on the list,” Trumbower said.
Doctor and specialist roles can be difficult to fill on the isolated islands, because there are fewer physicians available to hire, Pfeffer said.
There were nearly 117,000 veterans living in Hawaii in 2013, or about 9 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
The VA has contacted 50,000 veterans across the country to get them off of wait lists, said Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson.
Hawaii’s Congressional delegation expressed outrage at the revelations.
“It makes me sick knowing that our returned warriors are subject to begging for care when they come home,” said U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in a statement. Gabbard urged President Barack Obama to take action so that veterans could visit private doctors for care.
U.S. Sen Mazie Hirono said she plans to introduce legislation this week to provide immediate relief for waiting veterans who require emergency procedures.
A bill moving through Congress would provide funding for hiring medical staff and for leasing a new VA medical center on Oahu.
“Even with that progress and with a new Hawaii VA clinic in the pipeline, for me the audit report is a call for more and faster action,” said U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.
“This excessive wait time is unacceptable,” said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in a statement. “It is clear that the VA needs additional resources to match increasing demand for health services.”