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Waits to see doctors vary widely, survey finds

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David and Marianne Trujillo leave the VA facility in El Paso this week.(Juan Carlos Llorca/The Associated Press

David and Marianne Trujillo leave the VA facility in El Paso this week. (Juan Carlos Llorca/The Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – Veterans aren’t the only ones who can find it tough to get a quick appointment with a new doctor.

There are wide variations in wait times, depending on where you live and what kind of care you’re seeking.

Need routine primary care? The average wait to see a family physician for the first time ranged from 66 days in Boston to just five days in Dallas, according to a survey in 15 large cities by health care consulting firm Merritt Hawkins.

And that’s before the new federal health care law opened the way for millions of newly insured people to start looking for a doctor.

“To say it’s an easy solution to the VA problem – we’ll just have them get care in the community – overestimates the capacity the community has to absorb these folks,” said Dr. Yul Ejnes of the American College of Physicians.

A government audit shows more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting at least three months for their first appointments at Veterans Affairs medical centers and an additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA care over the past decade never got seen by a doctor. The longest waits for an initial primary care appointment ranged from 145 days in Honolulu to 73 days in Richmond, Va.

To help, Congress is moving to allow more veterans who encounter delays to seek VA-paid care, temporarily, from a non-VA doctor.

What’s the wait?

There are no national statistics. But Merritt Hawkins’ survey, released earlier this year, illustrates there’s variation around the country when it comes to choosing a new physician. And the kind of doctor you need makes a difference.

The wait for a first-time appointment with a cardiologist averaged 32 days in the nation’s capital but only 11 days in Atlanta.

Got knee pain? Waits for an initial consultation with an orthopedic surgeon averaged 18 days in San Diego and five days in Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Houston.

For a well-woman visit, waits for a first-time OB/GYN appointment ranged from 46 days in Boston to 10 days in Seattle.

Those are averages. The longest reported wait time was a stunning 256 days for a particular Minneapolis dermatologist. You could wait 129 days for a certain Seattle family practice and 132 days for one San Diego cardiologist, the survey found.

But people frustrated by waits for one doctor often can seek another, depending on their insurance and how far they’re willing to drive. Sure enough, Merritt Hawkins’ survey showed that in multiple cities, there were physicians with appointments available in just one day even for a new patient.

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