As medical care for veterans continues to raise concerns across the country, new data show that thousands of former service members still face significant delays when they seek treatment at Veterans Affairs medical centers in Maryland.
The longest delays among Maryland's VA centers were at the Glen Burnie VA Outpatient Clinic, where nearly 8 percent of appointments were not scheduled within 30 days, the goal set by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to data for the six-month period ending Feb. 28. The center's so-called failure rate topped the statewide rate of 2.9 percent and the national rate of 2.8 percent.
Overall, veterans in Maryland faced delays of at least 31 days in obtaining 7,205 appointments at VA medical centers, according to the data, which was compiled by the Associated Press.
Austin Robinson, an Army veteran, said Wednesday that he has waited as long as three months to get an appointment at the Glen Burnie clinic on Landmark Drive. Sometimes, doctors tell him to call a hotline or go to an emergency room if problems persist, and he doesn't like that.
"I don't understand why it takes so long," he said as he left the clinic. "The care is pretty good. It's just getting inside to get it done. Anything can happen in three months."
Agency officials blamed the failure rate on the loss of two of the clinic's five primary care providers. One left for another job; the other retired. To decrease wait times, the agency contracted with a primary care provider in February to boost coverage, and officials expect the failure rate to drop in the next reporting period.
"It is important to note that during a short time period when we were down two of five primary care providers at the Glen Burnie VA Outpatient Clinic, we were successfully able to serve 92 percent of our veteran patients within 30 days," said Dr. Martin L. Garcia-Bunuel, director of the Managed Care Clinical Center for the VA Maryland Health Care System.
The worst wait times in the nationwide VA system, which operates more than 1,000 facilities, were found at centers in the South, according to the Associated Press data. For example, at a clinic in Kentucky, nearly 20 percent of appointments involved a wait of longer than 30 days; some clinics in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia also had rates in the teens.
Maryland, which has 14 VA health facilities, did not show such long wait times. The failure rate at the Baltimore center, by far the largest such VA facility in the state, was 2.5 percent; Loch Raven's was 3.4; and Fort Meade's was 3.6, according to the data
The VA operates the largest health care system in the country, serving nearly 9 million veterans a year. Long delays triggered national outrage last year and led to the ouster of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May.
Lawmakers and the Obama administration have scrambled to address problems at the agency after it acknowledged long wait times — and attempts by some employees to cover them up. Congress unveiled a bipartisan agreement in May to spend $10 billion to expand access to medical care outside the traditional VA system for veterans who live more than 40 miles from a center or face long wait times.
Veterans in the Maryland system, which sees 55,000 patients a year, faced the fourth-longest wait in the nation to schedule a first-time visit with a primary care doctor, auditors reported in June 2014. Veterans in Maryland were waiting an average of 80 days for an initial appointment, the audit found, prompting a visit from then-acting Secretary Sloan Gibson to the Baltimore VA medical center. At the time, he pledged to spend more money to help veterans facing delays seek private care.
The failure rate at the Glen Burnie clinic concerns Anne Arundel County Executive Steven R. Schuh.
"Our VA hospitals treat those who have served this country honorably and bravely, and we want to make sure they get the best care possible," said Schuh spokesman Owen McEvoy. He said the county is willing to work with the VA to provide help to improve services at the clinic, adding: "It's a matter we will address when the county executive sits down with the congressional delegation."
From October 2013 to September 2014, the Glen Burnie clinic served 6,213 veterans with over 24,990 outpatient visits, officials said.
Even though the clinic's failure rate is the highest in Maryland, most veterans at the center Wednesday praised the care.
Army veteran William Hall, 66, said he receives treatment for liver and lung problems and complications from a stroke. He encountered delays in getting appointments several years ago, but no longer has that problem.
"I can get a same-day appointment sometimes," he said.
Navy veteran Doug Jones was surprised to hear about the delays. He said doctors treat him for a myriad of health issues, and he has five future appointments scheduled.
"This is the best one I've come too," said Jones. "I've never had a problem with them here."
To reduce delays, the VA has offered Glen Burnie patients waiting more than 30 days the choice of a quicker appointment at a clinic at Fort Meade. New patients waiting more than 30 days were also allowed to see a doctor at one of four private clinics operated by Evergreen Health Care, spokesman R. David Edwards said.
Rich Heath, a member of Anne Arundel County's veterans affairs commission, said the group had received some anecdotal reports of problems at the Glen Burnie clinic over a year ago but none recently. Heath, who served in Vietnam, said the commission and county governmentshould begin to address the concerns raised by the new data.
But he realizes how difficult it can be to fix the problem: "Trying to get a federal agency to change their process or habits, it's not impossible. But it's right up there."
Bertha Holtz, 75, has visited the Glen Burnie clinic for years with her husband and said the facility is always packed with patients. She said her husband would not come to the clinic if he encountered delays
"We have been treated great here," she said as her husband shooed her in the door.