WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands more veterans than previously reported are forced to wait at least a month for medical appointments at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics, according to an updated audit of 731 VA medical facilities released Thursday.
The updated report includes new figures showing that the wait times actually experienced at most VA facilities were shorter than those on waiting lists for pending appointments. For instance, new patients at the Atlanta VA hospital waited about an average of 44 days for an appointment in April, the new report said. But the average wait for pending appointments at Atlanta was 66 days.
Similar disparities in average wait times were found around the country. Pending appointments, for example, don't include patients who walk into a clinic and get immediate or quick treatment, VA officials said. They also don't reflect rescheduled appointments or those that are moved up because of openings due to cancellations.
VA officials said the two sets of data complement one another, but both are evidence that many veterans face long waits for care. More than 56,000 veterans were waiting more than 90 days for an initial appointment, the new report said.
"In many communities across the country, veterans wait too long for the high quality care they've earned and deserve," acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Thursday.
The department has reached out to 70,000 veterans to get them off waiting lists and into clinics, Gibson said, "but there is still much more work to be done."
The report released Thursday showed that about 10 percent of veterans seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics have to wait at least 30 days for an appointment. That's more than double the 4 percent of veterans the government said last week were forced to endure long waits.
Gibson called the increase unfortunate, but said it was probably an indication that more reliable data was being reported by VA schedulers, rather than a big increase in veteran wait times.
Administrators at local VA medical centers questioned the results of an audit released June 9, which looked only at pending appointments. The report did not match internal data on completed appointments showing waits actually were far shorter, the local officials said.
The reliability of both sets of data is in question. The VA is investigating widespread manipulation of appointment data by schedulers following an uproar over since-confirmed allegations that dozens of veterans died while awaiting appointments at the Phoenix VA medical center.
Some 13 percent of schedulers surveyed by the auditors reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment records to make patient waits appear shorter. The VA's inspector general has cited a since-abandoned performance bonus system as a reason for the falsifications, which schedulers used to mask frequent, long delays in treatment for veterans.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned three weeks ago amid an election-year firestorm over the treatment delays and waiting list problems at VA facilities nationwide.
Shinseki took the blame for what he decried as a "lack of integrity" through the VA network, which serves nearly 9 million veterans. The House and Senate have approved separate bills to allow more veterans who can't get timely VA appointments to see local doctors listed instead. The proposals also would make it easier to fire senior VA regional officials and hospital administrators.
The June 9 audit found that more than 57,000 veterans were waiting at least 90 days for their first VA medical appointments, and an additional 64,000 appeared to have fallen through the cracks, never getting appointments after enrolling for VA care within the past 10 years.
The new report said the number of veterans waiting more than 90 days dropped to about 56,300. About 46,400 veterans still have never gotten an appointment despite seeking one over the past decade, the report said.
Gibson, who replaced Shinseki May 30, said he still is not 100 percent confident that all wait times listed on VA computers — and its audits — are accurate.
"I have vastly greater confidence in the quality" of wait-time data being reported by VA employees, he said during a speech this week in Washington. "But I can't look at the entire database and say it's correct either."