Colorado Springs clinic serves state's highest concentration of veterans, faces worst delays

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DENVER — El Paso County has the biggest concentration of veterans in Colorado, but its VA clinic ranks near the bottom nationwide at getting them in for health care within 30 days, according to government data.

More than 10 percent of the appointments at the clinic from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28 took at least 31 days to schedule, missing the Department of Veterans Affairs' timeliness goal. That was the highest in the state and the 12th-worst out of 940 veterans outpatient clinics and hospitals reviewed nationwide.

The national average was 2.8 percent.

The Associated Press examined waiting times at hospitals and clinics across the U.S. to if things have improved since a scandal over delays and attempts to cover them up led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May and prompted lawmakers to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act in August.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how things have changed because the VA introduced a new method for measuring wait times at the end of the summer. That means the current published wait times can't be compared with data the VA was releasing last spring.

The trend across the nation, however, is clear. Since the summer, the number of appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has largely stayed flat. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

"It's a chaotic mess," said 69-year-old Kenneth Thibodeau of Colorado Springs, a Vietnam-era veteran who gets VA treatment for diabetes, blindness and an amputated leg.

He said he likes the care he gets from the VA — when he can get it.

"I think the scheduling part of it is the biggest problem right now," said Thibodeau, deputy chaplain for the Colorado American Legion. "When I make an appointment or something, I get a phone call the day before saying they have to reschedule, and you don't get a reason."

The Colorado Springs clinic is feeling the effects of a wave of veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as Colorado's population surge, said Dan Warvi, a spokesman for the VA's Eastern Colorado Health Care System, which includes Colorado Springs.

Veterans are a significant part of the Colorado influx, Warvi said. With five military installations, Colorado Springs is especially attractive to veterans who have served there or like the military-friendly community.

"The combination of multiple military installations plus the Colorado lifestyle has been a powerful draw for veterans," he said.

The clinic moved into a new 76,000-square-foot building in Colorado Springs in August, but its on-time performance has gotten worse. In September, nearly 8 percent of appointments were past the 30-day target. It rose to 11.6 percent in February.

The VA estimates that more than 82,000 veterans live in El Paso County, by far the most of any county in the state. Arapahoe County is second with nearly 45,000.

Nationwide, the number of veterans enrolled in the VA system rose from 6.8 million in 2002 to 8.9 million in 2013, and those numbers are likely to keep rising, officials say. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald told Congress in recent testimony the surge in Afghanistan and Iraq veterans seeking VA health care could continue for decades.


AP writer David B. Caruso contributed to this report.


Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP

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