Tillis visits Salisbury, talks VA wait times

Published 12:05 am Sunday, April 12, 2015

Reacting to an Associated Press report this week, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said a lack of significant progress in decreasing wait times is unacceptable.

Tillis visited VA hospitals in Fayetteville, Durham and Salisbury. The Salisbury VA didn’t allow media access for Tillis’ visit. In an interview with the Post, however, Tillis said work still remains to ensure veterans are receiving care in a timely manner. During a recent Veterans Affairs Committee meeting, which Tillis serves on, he said the chair and ranking member said they were working to come up with recommendations that would result in sustained, positive progress at VA facilities.

“There’s still a lot more work to do,” Tillis said, referencing improvement in wait times. “It’s unacceptable. Now, let’s figure out the root causes and fix them.”

The Associated Press report, published this week, showed that 11 clinics with the highest percentage of patients waiting more than 30 days were in eastern North Carolina and the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. All locations of the Salisbury VA Healthcare System — Salisbury, Charlotte, Hickory and Winston-Salem — showed increases in delays of one month for service. The steepest in the Salisbury system was at the Hickory Community Based Outpatient Clinic, where wait times have increased 2.4 percent since summer 2014.

Data for the W.G. Hefner VA Medical Center showed a 1.4 percent increase in patients waiting more than a month for care.

The lack of significant improvement in wait times, Tillis said, may be a result of an unanticipated caseload. The state’s population, since 2010, is estimated to have grown by about 400,000 people, according to U.S. Census data. The latest census data shows Raleigh as the 15th fastest growing municipality in the nation.

“There’s no question in my mind that we will to have to spend more money, if for no other reason than we’re just going to have a growing base of veterans that will need care,” he said.

Tillis said offering patients a choice to see a private provider for care should be a part of a solution to wait times.

In November, the VA began offering eligible veterans a choice to receive care at private providers. Among the eligibility requirements are a wait that’s longer than 30 days and an excessive burden to travel to the nearest facility. Tillis said one proposal he supports is to change a 40-mile requirement for veterans to receive care at a private provider. Instead, he said, the distance requirement should be based on capability of the VA hospital to perform certain kinds of medical work.

“Right now, with the way it’s written, you could be 35 miles away from a facility that wasn’t capable of serving your needs, but because it’s a VA facility that’s brick and mortar you couldn’t qualify for the choice program,” Tillis said.

Tillis said he asked directors at the VA facilities during his visit to find out how government bureaucracy might slow the speed at which veterans can receive care.

Another issue that needs attention, Tillis said, is reducing veteran homelessness. He said physical and mental health problems may be the root cause.

“It’s still a significant problem,” he said. “We’ve really got to get an understand of how broad based the issue really is.”

During an interview with the Post, Tillis also talked about his experiences inside of the VA facilities he toured.

He said the Fayetteville VA Medical Center seemed cramped, but referenced a new facility that’s scheduled for completion this year as a potential solution. He said Durham benefits from partnerships with Duke University and, as a result, can offer more healthcare options. The W.G. “Bill” Hefner VA Medical Center, Tillis said, had done a significant amount of work modernizing and building new facilities.

During his visit to the Salisbury VA Medical Center, Tillis said he toured a range of facilities, including mental health and hospice, and talked with the medical center’s management. He said there’s still a need at Salisbury’s VA — the largest in the state — for additional modernization.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.