by: MITCH WEISS, Associated Press Updated:
A report from the Department of Veterans Affairs says the average wait time for new patients at North Carolina VA hospitals ranged from nearly 29 days in Salisbury to 83 days in Fayetteville — the home of Fort Bragg.
The department says an audit of 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics found the agency's complicated appointment process created confusion among scheduling clerks and supervisors.
VA guidelines say veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. The department now says that meeting that target was unattainable given existing resources and growing demand.
The findings are part of a national audit ordered after a whistleblower claimed veterans were dying while waiting for care in Phoenix.
North Carolina has a big military presence, with eight bases that include the Army's Fort Bragg and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville.
Nearly 770,000 veterans live in North Carolina. The VA has medical centers in Fayetteville, Asheville, Durham and Salisbury, along with outpatient clinics spread across the state.
At the Fayetteville VA, just 83 percent of 47,447 appointments during the audit period were scheduled in under 30 days — the worst in the state.
At the Asheville VA, 97 percent of appointments were scheduled in fewer than 30 days, followed by the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury at 96 percent, and the Durham VA at 95 percent.
But there were troubling signs at the other VA centers in North Carolina, the audit showed.
At the Durham VA, the average wait for specialty care was nearly 69 days and 104 days for mental health. In Fayetteville, the average wait was 62 days to see a specialist and 27 days for mental health, while at the Asheville facility, the average wait for specialty care was 52 days and 33 days for mental health. In Salisbury, veterans had to wait 53 days to see a specialist and nearly 32 days for mental health.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-North Carolina, called the results of the VA's report "appalling and disturbing" and sent a letter the VA's acting secretary Sloan Gibson urging him to address the problem and visit the Fayetteville VA Medical Center. She noted that more than 157,000 veterans live in Fayetteville and the surrounding 21-county area.
"They require immediate and urgent action by the VA acting secretary to reduce wait times for veterans, particularly those in the Fayetteville area who face among the highest average wait times in the country," she said. "I am also concerned that several additional VA facilities in North Carolina require further investigation, and I expect full transparency and accountability from the Department of Veterans Affairs as those investigations proceed."