PORTLAND, Maine — The nation's oldest veterans hospital, in Augusta, Maine, is also among the VA sites where patients are less likely to have to wait a long time for treatment.
The Associated Press analyzed six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide to identify the ones struggling most to deliver prompt care.
Between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28, only 1.2 percent of the appointments completed at the VA hospital in Augusta failed to meet the department's timeliness standard, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days.
The national average for the time period was 2.8 percent. Maine's outpatient clinics also measured up well.
The AP found that many of the VA sites struggling to reduce wait times were clustered in the Southeastern U.S., where some hospitals and clinics had five, seven or even 10 times the percentage of delayed appointments as the average facility in Maine. The most troubled clinics are often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA's sluggish planning process.
VA officials said they have kept wait times reasonable in Maine by investing in staff and regional clinics and encouraging veterans to take advantage of "telemedicine" technology.
Maine's modest wait times reflect a relatively low rate of delays throughout the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast states.
Nationally, the AP found that waiting times haven't declined since a scandal over delays led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted lawmakers in August to allocate an additional $16.3 billion to the VA.
Here's a closer look at how Maine fared:
BY THE NUMBERS
The Maine VA Medical Center, commonly referred to as Togus, is by far the largest veterans care facility in the state, with more than 90,000 appointments completed in the six-month period. It consistently beat the national average in extended wait times, with a low month of just over 1 percent in September. The high month, January, was still more than a percentage point below the national average of 2.8 percent.
Maine's VA clinics also measured up well, with the Bangor clinic coming the closest to the national average at 2.6 percent. The Bangor clinic is the second-largest veterans care facility in Maine, with more than 21,000 appointments during the six-month period. It was the site of the largest percentage of extended wait times in the state — 4.5 percent in September.
TELEMEDICINE EASES BURDEN
The system has made strides in encouraging veterans to use "telemedicine" to send vital signs, like blood pressure, to VA staff, said Jim Doherty, a spokesman for Maine VA Medical Center. Use of telemedicine, which allows the veterans to send medical information to professionals via computer, increased from about 125 homes in 2010 to about 650 this year, he said. The use of telemedicine eases wait times at VA facilities and allows veterans to drive less.
CLINICS COME THROUGH
The system also leans on its regional clinics to provide care for veterans who live in some of the more far-flung parts of the state. Clinics in Caribou, Calais and Rumford all had extended wait times far below the national average.
Added staff will also help, as the system is also in the process of hiring more than three dozen staff members, Doherty said.
"We're aggressively hiring," he said.
VETS SAY SERVICE IS SWIFT
Peter Miesburger, a veteran of the Korean War and Vietnam War eras and chairman of the legislative committee for the Maine Veterans of Foreign Wars, said wait times are also low because of responsive staff and the accessibility of the clinics. He said he lives a 500-mile roundtrip drive from the Maine VA Medical Center in Augusta, but is able to handle many of his needs locally in Caribou.
"My appointments are within reason and all my pals are all within reason," Miesburger said. "And I'm way up north."
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