U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on Friday called for more public-private partnerships in Veterans Affairs hospitals to deal with the wait-times scandal that has developed over the last year.
Tillis made a tour this week of state VA facilities, including stops at the Durham and Salisbury hospitals Friday and a stop at the Fayetteville facility Tuesday. He also toured Fort Bragg on Tuesday.
His tour comes amid reports of continued long wait times for VA appointments around the nation, including an Associated Press report this week that wait times have not decreased since the scandal broke last year.
“I’m here to make sure we do a better job,” said Tillis, a Republican.
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Tillis said that in many cases procedural issues that are not in control of North Carolina officials are to blame for long wait times at VA facilities in the state.
Asked if North Carolina needed more VA facilities, he said the state needs more capacity, whether or not it comes in new facilities. The age of some facilities, he said, means that some new ones probably will be necessary.
“It’s more about how do you expand our footprint but maybe not just by building another standalone building,” he said.
Tillis noted that many veterans appreciate the unique atmosphere of a VA hospital, where many giving care are veterans themselves. But he said he also is open to providing care outside the VA system.
“We need to figure out veterans’ choice,” Tillis said, “something that’s been passed but really hasn’t had a significant impact on allowing veterans who need an appointment, who need access to care, to get it through a private provider if they can’t be provided that service through a VA facility.”
Tillis was referring to a program begun in November that gives veterans the option to receive non-VA care rather than waiting for a VA appointment if:
▪ Their local VA facility has told them they will have to wait more than 30 days from their preferred date or the date medically determined by their physician.
▪ Their home is more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility.
▪ They need to travel by plane or boat to the VA facility closest to their home.
▪ They face an unusual or excessive burden in traveling to a VA facility based on a body of water or a geologic formation that cannot be crossed by road.
Danny Anderson of Orrum, near Lumberton, is a Vietnam veteran with throat cancer who was waiting for a ride outside the Durham VA on Friday as Tillis spoke.
He said that within three days of his cancer diagnosis he had an appointment in Durham.
“I couldn’t ask for better care,” said Anderson, who said he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. “Everyone from the floor sweeper to the doctors has been great.”
U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat representing parts of Durham, Raleigh and all of Chapel Hill, said he was open to “any reasonable suggestions for reform” but is wary of calls for privatization.
“I strongly believe that the best way forward is to give the VA the resources it needs to recruit necessary staff and modernize its delivery of care system, not implement ill-advised privatization schemes that could undermine its basic mission,” Price said. “At the same time, we must hold the system accountable for its shortcomings, and Congress needs to oversee this effort to ensure that key goals are met and federal dollars are spent wisely.”
The Associated Press found especially long waits for appointments at VA hospitals in Eastern North Carolina.
A study of VA visits from Sept. 1 and Feb. 28 by the wire service found that the VA clinic in Jacksonville had the fourth-worst wait times in the nation for percentage of patients delayed 31 days or more.
The analysis found that 16 percent of appointments completed during that time failed to meet the VA’s standard calling for patients to be seen within 30 days. That’s nearly six times the national average of 2.8 percent.
The Goldsboro clinic ranked 29th worst in the analysis, the Greenville clinic 33rd worst and the Wilmington clinic 35th worst.