Deemed Unreliable by the GAO: VA Health Care Outpatient Medical Appointment Wait Times
What GAO Found
In brief, GAO found that (1) VHA's reported outpatient medical appointment wait times are unreliable, (2) there was inconsistent implementation of certain elements of VHA's scheduling policy that could result in increased wait times or delays in scheduling timely medical appointments, and (3) VHA is implementing or piloting a number of initiatives to improve veterans' access to medical appointments.
Specifically, VHA's reported outpatient medical appointment wait times are unreliable because of problems with correctly recording the appointment desired date — the date on which the patient or provider would like the appointment to be scheduled — in the VistA scheduling system. Since, at the time of our review, VHA measured medical appointment wait times as the number of days elapsed from the desired date, the reliability of reported wait time performance is dependent on the consistency with which VA medical centers (VAMC) schedulers record the desired date in the VistA scheduling system. However, aspects of VHA's scheduling policy and related training documents on how to determine and record the desired date are unclear and do not ensure replicable and reliable recording of the desired date by the large number of staff across VHA who can schedule medical appointments, which at the time of our review was estimated to be more than 50,000.
During our site visits, we found that at least one scheduler at each VAMC did not record the desired date correctly, which, in certain cases, would have resulted in a reported wait time that was shorter than the patient actually experienced for that appointment. Moreover, staff at some clinics told us they change medical appointment desired dates to show clinic wait times within VHA's performance goals. Although VHA officials acknowledged limitations of measuring wait times based on desired date, and told us that they use additional information, such as patient satisfaction survey results, to monitor veterans' access to medical appointments, reliable measurement of how long veterans wait for appointments is essential for identifying and mitigating problems that contribute to wait times.
Photograph, Wikipedia: United States Army Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha in Afghanistan in 2009. Romesha received the Medal of Honor award from President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House on 11 February 2013.
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