LOS ANGELES — Thousands of veterans who are patients at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System have been waiting months just for an appointment, CNN has learned.
What’s more, administrators in charge of the massive VA facility in greater Los Angeles may have been hiding wait times, and may have misled Congress on the delays and exactly how long veterans are being forced to wait for care, according to new information obtained by CNN.
This revelation means that the scandal over delays in care and wait times for veterans, which embroiled the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last year and even led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, is apparently not over. And the changes promised by the VA and the Obama administration may not be working.
The detailed new evidence comes from the Los Angeles VA’s own internal documents obtained by CNN, and numerous medical and administrative sources confirmed the information.
It is particularly significant as the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Medical Center is the nation’s largest VA health care system, caring for hundreds of thousands of U.S. veterans.
The VA documents show more than 12,700 appointments, which the VA calls consults, had been waiting more than 90 days to be addressed, as of mid-January.
Even new patients seeking care at the Los Angeles VA for the first time can wait months to see a doctor there.
Records show on Jan. 15, more than 1,600 veterans who were new patients were waiting 60 to 90 days for appointments. Another 400 veterans have waited up to six months, and 64 veterans had been waiting six months to a year for their appointments.
The documents provided to CNN show the lengthy wait times are still happening, within the last several months, and sources say the backlog is happening even now.
And yet last month, the VA’s acting director for the Western region overseeing the Los Angeles VA told Congress that veterans who are new patients there only have to wait a few days for appointments.
“The average wait time for a new patient right now is about four days,” Dr. Skye McDougall, the acting director of the Desert Pacific Healthcare Network, Veterans Health Administration, testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
But McDougall’s statement is simply not true.
According to the Los Angeles VA’s documents dated Jan. 15, the actual average wait time for new patients at the VA was 48 days. A half-dozen medical and administrative sources inside the LA VA system corroborate those waits.
The wait times since then have not changed significantly — coming down slightly to a wait time of 44 days for new patients as of March 1, according to another VA document — and are still roughly 10 times what McDougall testified they were.
The delays in appointments are even taking place at Los Angeles clinics for mental health, where documents show more than 300 veterans have been waiting more than 30, 60, even 90 days for treatment.
At the congressional hearing, McDougall was specifically asked about mental health wait times for new patients, a growing national concern as hundreds of veterans are committing suicide every year.
Asked how long the wait time is for mental health at the Los Angeles VA, McDougall testified that the same number — a four days’ wait for new patients — applies for mental health.
But that is also not true, according to the documents and sources inside the VA who spoke with CNN.
A new VA chart shows as of March 1, new mental health patients in Los Angeles are waiting an average 36 days just to get an appointment.
Los Angeles VA officials would not talk to CNN about the discrepancies but instead sent a statement saying that the “Greater Los Angeles and VA nationwide continues to work very hard to get veterans off waiting lists and into clinics to get the care they have earned and deserve.”
The VA sent CNN new “retrospective data” showing primary care average wait times of four days, specialty care wait times of 7.5 days, and mental health wait times of 2.5 days, as of January. The VA explained that the chart for new patients obtained by CNN “does not include same day appointments or in some cases same week appointments for those veterans who need care quickly.”
New patients, the VA told CNN, “typically account for less than 10 percent of all veteran appointments and are not representative of the whole patient population.”
Despite the “retrospective data,” the real truth, say the sources CNN has interviewed, is reflected in the internal LA VA documents obtained by CNN — that wait times for many patients at the Los Angeles VA Medical Centers extends into weeks and months and are a serious problem.
This news of continuing delays in Los Angeles comes a year after reports of cover-ups and turmoil at the VA, which became a national scandal, where wait times, veterans’ deaths and even secret waiting lists were revealed at VA hospitals across the country.
Congress even passed a new law last fall to help veterans get care more quickly, as a direct result of the scandal. And since the scandal, Congress has approved $16 billion extra for the VA in an attempt to hire more doctors and nurses and to build more facilities. The VA removed its 14-day scheduling goal to discourage engaging in “inappropriate scheduling practices,” and President Barack Obama also appointed a new VA secretary, Robert McDonald, last summer.
Sources in the Greater Los Angeles VA say despite the scandal last year, the new secretary, the new laws and all the attention, not much has changed.
Scott Bronstein, Drew Griffin, Nelli Black and Curt Devine reported on this story for CNN.