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By Jennifer Hlad
Stars and Stripes
Published: September 15, 2014

SAN DIEGO — As part of the effort to eliminate the VA appointment backlog by the end of next year, Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald said Monday that he plans to increase the range of pay for VA doctors and nurses, among other changes.

Here to address the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs Convention, McDonald said Monday that more clinic and hospital space, more employees and better pay for providers are the keys to solving the wait-time problems that have plagued the VA for years; he’s recently started going to medical schools to recruit doctors and nurses himself.

As of Sept. 5, the Veterans Health Administration also has reached out to more than 240,000 veterans to get them appointments, and reduced the electronic waiting lists by 57 percent, he said.

“We have a lot of work to do,” McDonald said, “I think we’re well on our way, though, to ending the backlog by 2015.”

San Diego’s wait times are not as long as many VA facilities: Local VA director Jeff Gering said new patients wait fewer than 20 days for primary care, specialty care and mental health appointments.

But the veteran population is growing rapidly. McDonald said San Diego County is the No. 1 destination for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and the VHA must get ahead of the curve so wait times don’t balloon in the future.

Still, expansion takes time. Construction is underway on an additional 217,000 square feet at the VA hospital in La Jolla, and plans are moving forward to double the clinic space in Mission Valley and triple the space in Chula Vista. In the meantime, hospitals and clinics have added night and weekend hours to make room for more caregivers, and thus reduce appointment delays.

Gering said he hopes to shorten the construction time frame, and hire additional staff once they have room for them.

In Phoenix, where patients languished on secret wait lists for months, McDonald said each doctor only had one room, versus the three rooms per doctor typical in the private sector. That meant doctors could not see as many patients, he said.

But capacity was only one of myriad problems in Phoenix; McDonald said he hopes recommitting to the VA’s mission will help ensure that VA employees are truly working to reduce wait times, not just statistics.

“Hiding names in a drawer or on a secret wait list is obviously not committed to the mission,” McDonald said.

The VA also is encouraging the inspector general to investigate sites alleged to have kept secret lists, and it will refer cases to the FBI and for disciplinary action when appropriate, he said.

“Delivering accountability is very important to us,” McDonald said.

He’s also seeking critical feedback. Since several media outlets published his cell phone number online — which he offered up at a news conference — he’s received calls at all hours, he said. He also has hosted several town hall meetings, including one Monday morning at the San Diego VA hospital, which he said might have been the best yet.

“The people were not bashful at all,” he said. “But that’s good. That’s what we want … The intention is to get all that bad news out. We can’t work on it if we don’t know.”

hlad.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @jhlad