More than 1,000 veterans have been waiting three months or more for initial medical appointments within the Veterans Affairs Department’s health care system in New Mexico, according to the findings of an audit released Monday.
The wide-ranging audit covered hundreds of VA hospitals and clinics across the country, including the medical center in Albuquerque where officials previously said more than 3,000 patients were assigned to a doctor who didn’t actually see patients.
The audit found that new patients seeking primary care within New Mexico’s VA system wait an average of 46 days and those needing specialty care wait nearly two months. New patients seeking mental health care wait an average of 38 days.
VA officials in Albuquerque were reviewing the audit. A spokesman declined to comment on its findings, and it was unclear whether any veterans were put at risk by waiting.
VA hospitals and clinics in other states had new patient waits three times the average wait in New Mexico, but veterans in Albuquerque and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation are still concerned about delays in care and the quality of care they receive.
While the audit shows 92 percent of all appointments are scheduled within 30 days in the New Mexico VA system, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., questioned the findings, because they rely on information provided by the VA. She continued her call Monday for an independent investigation.
“I am very skeptical of the audit report because it relies on information provided by the VA that does not match what we’ve been hearing from constituents, at my Town Hall or in news reports from around the country,” Lujan Grisham said. “That’s why we need an independent, outside investigation. I also heard from several veterans at our Town Hall meeting who said they have no faith in the VA’s Office of Inspector General.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement Monday, “What has happened at the VA is a betrayal of our veterans – men and women who fought for our freedom – and it is unacceptable.”
Udall’s office pointed to the 3,485 veterans who waited more than 30 days for an appointment. That represents about 8 percent of the total appointments scheduled within the system.
“These findings mirror complaints I have heard from veterans, family members and VA whistleblowers – concerns that the VA initially said were unfounded,” Udall said. “The audit again confirms that the VA has not been open and honest with the public or with me about systemic problems with patient wait times.”
Nationwide, according to the audit, more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for their first VA medical appointments, and an additional 64,000 appear to have fallen through the cracks, never getting appointments after enrolling.
It’s not just a backlog issue, the wide-ranging Veterans Affairs review indicated.
Thirteen percent of schedulers in the facility-by-facility report on 731 hospitals and outpatient clinics reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment schedules to make patient waits appear shorter.
A preliminary audit last month found that long patient waits and falsified records were “systemic” throughout the VA medical network.