JACKSON, MS (WLOX) - THE PROBLEM: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is still failing to see many former service members within its own timeliness goal of 30 days, according to a review by The Associated Press. Government data shows the system wait times are generally worse in the Southeast and Gulf Coast, including parts of Mississippi.
STATISTICS: The range of delays varies by facility. About 5.4 percent of appointments completed at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Biloxi were delayed more than 30 days in February, almost twice the national average of 2.9 percent. The G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson saw delays of about 2.6 percent of appointments. But fewer than 1 percent of appointments were delayed at clinics in Columbus, Greenville, Hattiesburg, Holly Springs, Kosciusko, McComb, Meridian and Natchez.
TRENDS: Performance has been getting worse at both the Jackson and Biloxi hospitals, which handle about seven times as many appointments as the state's outpatient clinics. In Biloxi, the percentage of appointments delayed more than 30 days rose every month from September through January, starting at 2.8 percent and peaking at 5.6 percent, before dipping to 5.4 percent in February.
Delays have risen in Jackson, but not as much, starting at 1.8 percent in September. Multi-month delays have also grown at the two hospitals, and especially in Biloxi.
In September, the Biloxi VA reported that only 82 completed appointments had involved a wait of longer than 60 days. By February, that number had more than tripled, to 301.The Biloxi hospital is part of the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System. It also includes clinics in the Florida Panhandle that have been reporting some of the country's worst delays.
RESPONSE: Mary Kay Gominger, spokeswoman for the Biloxi VA Medical Center, said that the hospital has added extended hours and weekend clinics to try to help accommodate increasing demand, and seeks to fast-track veterans with high-risk conditions. She said that patients have grown by 12 percent over the last three years. Among challenges that Gominger cites are high demand for specialty care, three vacant primary care positions that the hospital is seeking to fill, and problems with people making appointments but not showing up, meaning those slots can't be used to see other patients. She said medical leaders discuss access issues every day in their morning meeting. "Access to care is a top priority for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System," Gominger said in a statement.
OTHER ISSUES: The Jackson hospital has faced allegations of improper patient care over the past decade, including claims of understaffing, a radiologist who didn't properly read some X-rays, and dirty medical instruments. Officials there said last year they've hired more primary care physicians to improve the speed of care.