Regional officials from the health and benefits system that serves veterans crowed over the gains they’ve made in the past few years. On the other side of a room at Soldier's Memorial Monday, members of veteran’s organizations brought up their clients’ latest challenges, but said the conditions have noticeably improved.
The discussion was part of a roundtable meeting that touched on issues related to each of the three branches of the Veterans Administration: the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Cemetery Administration.
The Acting Director of the St. Louis VA Health Care System, Patricia Ten Haaf, reported that average wait times for primary care, mental health and specialty appointments are all under ten days. Last summer, an audit showed the average wait for new patients was more than a month for primary care and mental health, and 86 days for specialty care.
Fred Bradley of the St. Louis chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America said some of the veterans he works with are still waiting two months for a specialty appointment, particularly for physical therapy.
“Our physical therapy is one of the busiest services we have. Most of our clinics are expanding,” said Dr. Anupam Agarwal, the acting chief of staff for the health system.
“But it depends on the clinical service and the urgency. Let’s say it’s a post-operative patient. Then we strive to get them their therapy the next day because that’s crucial to their recovery,” Agarwal added.
If a patient can’t be seen within 30 days, Agarwal said they are referred out of the VA system, a ‘safety valve’ option made possible by last year’s passage of the Veteran’s Access, Choice and Accountability Act.
This past May, the U.S. Office of the Inspector General released a 52-page audit of the healthcare branch of the St. Louis VA. The regional network of hospitals, mental health centers and community based clinics met requirements in 64 out of 101 areas reviewed.
Wait times for medical claim processing has also improved. Regional director for the Veteran’s Benefits Administration, Mitzi Marsh, said that only 5,037 claims remained in their backlog, down from more than 20,000 in November of 2012.
“Our employees have made significant progress. They’ve worked a lot of mandatory overtime these past three years, and the next fiscal year we’ll have new goals and priorities,” Marsh said. She was appointed to her position last December, after leading the VBA’s division in Wichita, Kan.
Data compiled by the Center for Investigative Reporting appears to validate these numbers, and shows that the St. Louis region has been able to shrink its backlog more quickly than other major metropolitan areas.
Tracy Vawter, a veteran and services officer for the American Legion, said increased communication, staffing and the use of technology has made a visible difference for the people she works with.
“It continues to improve. We say here’s an area that needs improvement and improvement happens. It’s a process,” Vawter said.
When there is a communications issue, like an overloaded doctor forgetting to follow up with a patient, Vawter said it can still have devastating consequences. But today, these cases are rare at the VA. And she said it occurs in the private sector as well.
Jeff Barnes, who directs the cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, said the location is projected to reach capacity and close in 2021. The administration is attempting to purchase an adjacent section of Sylvan Springs Park from St. Louis County, which has caused some controversy.
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