CHICAGO – Data released Monday shows the average wait time for a patient to see a primary care physician at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Danville is nearly four times the federal administration's target of 14 days.
While the average 54-day wait for primary care at the east central Illinois facility pales in comparison to a national high of a 145-day wait for primary care in Honolulu, Hawaii, it was also the highest of Illinois' five major VA medical centers.
The audit of 731 hospitals and outpatient clinics – based on a snapshot of VA data as of May 15 – follows allegations that 40 patients died awaiting care at a Phoenix hospital where employees kept a secret waiting list to cover up delays.
It's a report that Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says is proof of a "pretty toxic culture of corruption" throughout the department. His Democratic colleague, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, called the news both "troubling" and "unacceptable."
The audit shows the average wait time for a primary care appointment was 38 days at the Marion VA Medical center, 33 days for patients at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital outside Chicago and 41 days at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. The James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago had a wait time of slightly more than 14 days.
Abandoned VA guidelines said veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. The department has since said that meeting that target was unattainable given existing resources and growing demand. Monday's audit by the VA called the 2011 decision by senior VA officials to set it, and then basing bonuses on meeting the target, an "organizational leadership failure."
Nationwide, the audit found that more than 57,000 patients were awaiting initial medical appointments 90 days or more after requesting them, and an additional 64,000 who enrolled in the system over the past decade had never had appointments. It blamed the VA's complicated appointment process, saying it created confusion among scheduling clerks and supervisors.
Some 73 patients at Illinois' five key VA sites still hadn't gotten appointments at least three months after requesting them, with the Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago accounting for 50 of those patients, the audit showed.
Of the nearly 900 patients who enrolled in the VA system but never had appointments at those Illinois sites, 494 of them involved the Marion VA, according to the audit.
Messages left Monday with a spokeswoman for the Marion site were not immediately returned. Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, after privately visiting with Marion VA staff and patients last week, attributed any delayed care at that site at least partly to staffing shortages, noting that the medical center is working to recruit 200 additional full-time employees.
"I'm pleased to see the overall quality of care here at Marion," Enyart said then. "But there's always room for improvement. I can't speak to the entire VA system, but efforts are being made here at Marion for improved care."
Kirk has recently visited the Marion and Hines facilities and has plans to travel to other hospitals in the coming months. He said details of the audit backed up what his office had heard from "whistleblowers on the ground" in recent days.
The Republican from Highland Park said he met last week with a VA social worker and union representative, as well as a current and former physician from Hines about allegations of misconduct at the Hines facility in the Chicago suburbs, including whether $16.6 million in bonuses to employees may have led to secret wait lists and scheduling manipulation.
Kirk is a co-sponsor of bipartisan legislation aimed at reforming the VA and providing veterans more flexibility in where they obtain health care.
He also says he's considering introducing a proposal that would appoint military doctors to provide oversight at various facilities.
"That experience of serving in combat gives you tremendous backbone," Kirk said.