Top military officials weigh in on VA scandal over wait times



ATLANTA - Georgia's top military leader is weighing in on the Veterans Affairs scandal and the long wait times at VA hospitals.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant talked exclusively with Maj. Gen. Jim Butterworth about the scandal Tuesday.
Butterworth heads up the Georgia National Guard and has seen the toll extended wait times at the Atlanta VA and elsewhere have on the men and women under his command. His focus is on solutions.
"This is a breach of trust; it is irresponsible; it is indefensible; and it is unacceptable," said Philip Matkovsky with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Another top Department of Veterans Affairs leader fell on his sword before Congress amid a widening scandal.
"We also have to work to earn back the trust of our veterans. We'll do that one veteran at a time," said Sloan Gibson, acting VA secretary.
And we now know veterans are waiting longer to get first-time appointments at the Atlanta VA Medical Center than anywhere else in the state.
An audit found patients are waiting 64 days for primary care, among the highest in the nation, 52 days for specialty care and nearly a month for mental health care.
"It's all about leadership. What's the leadership going to do, the leadership of the veterans administration, and how do they step up from this point forward?" Butterworth asked.
Butterworth, the state's top military leader, is adamant the key is giving vets waiting for care better access to private facilities.
"With some of those kind of issues, a lot can happen in 12 hours or less, much less 30 or 40 days," Butterworth said.
That push is already underway in congress after an agency audit confirmed 57,000 veterans have waited more than three months for a first appointment.
"None of the numbers were good. There were no superstars. Nobody was doing great," said Sen. Johnny Isakson.
And the Atlanta VA is now on a growing list flagged by the agency for further review.
"We need the veterans administration to realize that time is of the essence," Isakson said.
Diamant received an email from a spokesperson for the VA regional office Tuesday admitting wait times are higher than they should be and is taking what she calls "aggressive steps" to improve Georgia veterans' access to VA and private health care facilities.

Full statement from the VA:

The VA Southeast Network’s (VISN 7) most important mission is to ensure that Veterans receive high-quality care in a timely manner. VISN 7 is comprised of 8 medical centers and 4 dozen outpatient clinics, and is home to the third largest Veteran population in the nation. VISN 7 cares for more than 389,000 Veterans and employs approximately 16,000 personnel throughout  Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. In fiscal year 2013 alone, VISN 7 documented more than 6 million outpatient appointments across its tri-state area.

Results of VA’s nationwide access audits show that many VISN 7 wait times are higher than they should be. As a result, VISN 7 is working aggressively to improve access at all sites of care. This includes having established call centers at each VA medical center, and making personal phone calls to every veteran who is awaiting VA care. Since May 28, VISN 7 has contacted more than 4,300 primary and specialty care patients to schedule appointments based on the Veteran’s desired date. Staff are also reaching out to new enrollees, and will offer earlier appointments to established patients and those who are currently scheduled for non-urgent surgical care.

In addition, VISN 7 is hiring more staff, and continues to offer extended clinic hours to include evenings and Saturdays. In cases where VISN 7 is unable to accommodate scheduling requests internally, VISN 7 will continue to offer veterans the option to receive non-VA care in the community. Furthermore, VISN 7 continues to increase its footprint by leasing clinical space and adding new clinics across the region.

VISN 7 is currently pursuing leased space for the following:

  • Anderson, S.C. – design is underway for an outpatient clinic
  • Birmingham, Ala. – design is underway for a primary care annex and parking
  • Columbus, Ga. – seeking a larger outpatient clinic space
  • Charleston, S.C. – seeking additional parking
  • Hinesville, Ga. – clinic opening scheduled June 13
  • Huntsville, Ala. – construction underway for an outpatient clinic
  • Mobile, Ala. – seeking a larger outpatient clinic space
  • Montgomery, Ala. – design is underway for a health care center
  • Savannah, Ga. – seeking a larger outpatient clinic space

Upcoming clinic activations include the following Georgia locations:

  • Tifton County
  • Pike County
  • Newton County
  • Pickens County

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