Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals have shorter wait times than private healthcare facilities for some specialties, a new study says.
In 2014, VA hospital wait times were neck-and-neck with private facilities, but since then the government-run facilities have shown improved wait times, according to a study published Friday in JAMA.
"Following the access crisis (in 2014), we focused on ensuring that veterans with urgent medical needs would not be waiting for care," Steven Lieberman, acting principal deputy under secretary for health at the VA and an author on the study, told UPI. "That's why we implemented same day services in primary care and mental health clinics. We also implemented a referral to a specialist for an urgent need.
"Back in the time of the access crisis, it would take about 19 days for a request for a veteran to be seen by that specialist. And through a lot of hard work on this, our wait times are less than two days to a specialist for an urgent need," Lieberman said.
In all, the study reveals that 22 percent of veterans who visit VA hospitals receive treatment the same day.
The researchers found that new appointment wait times for primary care, cardiology, and dermatology were faster at VA facilities than in private facilities. While orthopedic times were improved, the researchers report they still lag behind private facilities.
These findings overlap with a study by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Studies that showed VA hospitals outperform nearby other nearby hospitals.
The VA operates 1,240 healthcare facilities that care for more than 9 million veterans throughout the United States, making it the largest integrated health system in the country.
In 2014, the U.S. Inspector General reported that a Phoenix VA hospital had lied about wait times for veterans, with official data showing that 226 patients waited only 24 days while investigators found they waiting for an average of 115 days.
"So, we saw there was a need there, particularly to meet the urgent needs of veterans, and we tackled that need," Lieberman said.
Last February, the VA put 15 of it's lowest performing hospitalson notice. Those facilities received a one-star rating out of five on the VA's Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning Value Model, or SAIL, a system that summarizes hospital system performances.
"We set up an office that was focused purely on improving access across the country, which reported to the undersecretary for health, and that office was focused solely on this topic," Lieberman said. "We actually visited different facilities across the country and monitored how they were doing and kept getting feedback to ensure how they were doing."
"Initially, we were getting complaints saying, 'That I had an urgent need, and I couldn't be seen,'" Lieberman said. "Another common complaint that we still get is 'I life in a rural part of the country',"
Lieberman says the VA wants to grow its telehealth program, which engaged 2.3 million appointments in 2018. The program uses real-time interactive video conferencing to treat patients remotely. In 2017, the VA reported that 45 percent of its rural patients used this service.
Yet some veterans lack reliable internet connectivity. So, the VA launched its "Anywhere to Anywhere Together" initiative to bridge that gap for patients who once lacked telehealth access.
"This year, we're focusing on growing 'Anywhere to Anywhere,' where our provider can be located anywhere, and the veteran can be located anywhere," Lieberman said.