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VA could receive $15 million to send veteran patients to private sector

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NASHVILLE – The VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System is seeking staffing funds to cut down on wait times for enrollment and appointments at facilities such as York VA Medical Center, officials said Wednesday.

The system also could be receiving up to $15 million to send patients for treatment in the private sector.

System Director Juan Morales acknowledged Wednesday that the system here has the sixth highest wait time in the nation and was “flagged” by the Veterans Administration for shortcomings, though he wasn’t sure why. The VA’s goal is to set appointments in 14 days.

“Our focus is very clear,” he said at a press conference at the VA’s Nashville hospital. “It’s about the veterans.”

Morales said he received word Wednesday that $14 million to $15 million had been approved to meet a backlog of appointments. He also noted he had been “reassured” that funding would be approved to hire more staff.

The VA came under fire nationally amid reports that some veterans were waiting so long for appointments that some died before they could be seen for treatment. VA Secretary Gen. Erik Shinseki resigned two weeks ago amid criticism.

U.S. Army veteran Matthew Lange of Murfreesboro recently told The Post he waited four months to get a primary care physician when he entered the VA health-care system. He also said he’s been waiting since April for a June 17 appointment for a CT Scan after doctors spotted a lump on his kidney.

Despite its lofty goal, the Middle Tennessee VA system has an average wait time of 58 days for primary care appointments for new patients but only 3.13 days for established patients who need primary care appointments. The bigger problems lies with specialty care appointments, which take an average of 71.3 days for new patients but only 1.99 days for established patients, according to VA officials.

“We know the areas where we have the challenges,” Morales said.

For instance, the Murfreesboro and Nashville clinics are its only two Middle Tennessee locations for ophthalmology appointments, officials said. The VA also struggles to meet patient needs in orthopedics, optometry, podiatry and pain, they said.

Yet officials said the system here had already identified its inability to quickly meet patients’ needs and had sent 22,000 of them for appointments in the private sector.

The Middle Tennessee system reported 123,630 appointments scheduled, 120,844 of them, 98 percent, being made in 30 days or less.

System spokesman Chris Conklin said “high workload” caused long wait times even as the Middle Tennessee system was sending patients into the private sector for treatment.

“There’s a huge increase in the requests for these services,” he said.

They could not give a breakdown on how many more physicians and staff members could be added to the York VA to reduce wait times.

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-South Pittsburg, voted Tuesday for the Veteran Access to Care Act, which would require the VA to allow any enrolled veterans who can’t get appointments within wait-time goals and who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to get private-sector care at the VA’s expense.

“As a former physician at a VA hospital, I was outraged to hear reports that Middle Tennessee veterans had to wait longer than anywhere else in the country to receive medical treatment. Our veterans deserve better and we can and must deliver for them,” he said in a statement.

The legislation approved this week should ensure that veterans who can’t receive timely service will get the care where and when they need it, he said.

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