The days of long waits are ending for veterans who want to see doctors outside of VA hospitals and clinics — at least for veterans in Northeast Oregon, Southeast Washington and Western Idaho.
Currently, after a veteran calls the VA to arrange an appointment, the average wait to see a doctor outside a VA hospital or clinic in this region is eight days. This is a considerably shorter wait time than the 2016-17 average of 124 days in the Walla Walla VA Medical Center’s service area.
“It has been a phenomenal improvement,” said Steven Fleury, chief of the VA Care in the community program for the Walla Walla VA, at a veterans town hall on Wednesday in La Grande. “Four months was too long for anyone to wait to see a doctor.”
VA Care in the Community is an improved version of the Veterans Choice Program, which makes it possible for veterans to see outside doctors and have the expense covered by the VA. The VA Care in the Community Program, which was created by the VA Mission Act of 2018, is now being phased to replace the Veterans Choice Program.
The new program is speeding things up because, unlike Veterans Choice, it does use private contractors to set up appointments with outside doctors, said Keith Allen, acting director of the Walla Walla VA Medical Center. Instead, the money spent on contractors is being used to hire more VA staff to arrange the appointments.
“We are cutting out the middleman,” Fleury said. “We have a direct relationship (with) health care providers.”
He said the process of phasing in Care in the Community is continuing. This means the Walla Walla VA is still adding and training more staff for the new program.
Fleury said the success of the Care in the Community Program is increasing the number of veterans being served by the VA. The increase is boosting call volume and the number of requests for travel voucher payments received by the Walla Walla VA. This is making it harder for veterans to get through on the phone to the Walla Walla VA and lengthened the time it takes to process travel voucher payment requests, officials said at Wednesday’s town hall.
“There is a ripple effect (caused by more people using the system),” Fleury said, adding that these issues are being examined and will be addressed.
See more in Friday's edition of The Observer.