New Patients Face Long Waits at Texas VA Centers

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EL PASO, Texas (AP) - Some Veterans Affairs facilities in Texas have some of the nation's longest wait times for veterans trying to see a doctor for the first time - including four centers with some of the nation's longest delays for patients seeking mental health care, according to federal data released Monday.

The findings were part of a national audit at 731 VA hospitals and large clinics conducted amid an uproar that began with reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the VA facility in Phoenix. Veterans aren't supposed to wait more than 14 days for an appointment, but the national audit says that's "not attainable," given growing demand for VA services and poor planning.

The Texas numbers - based on a snapshot of VA data from May 15 - show that while 92 percent of existing patients get scheduled to receive an appointment within two weeks and 96 percent are scheduled within 30 days, new cases often take much longer to process.

At the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend center in Harlingen, new patients waited an average of 85 days for primary care appointments - second only to the VA facility in Honolulu, Hawaii, and its 145-day average wait.

The Harlingen facility also had a worst-in-the-nation, 145-day average wait for new patients seeking specialist care. Second was the El Paso facility with 90-day waits.

New patients seeking mental health care, meanwhile, faced a 61-day average wait in Amarillo, the nation's third longest. The El Paso center was fourth-worst nationally with a 60-day average wait, while Harlingen was eighth-worst with 55 days. The VA center in Dallas came in 10th at 50 days.

One of the El Paso patients was Army chaplain Melinda Russell, who developed post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq. Upon leaving the Army in 2010, she was given a one-month supply of anti-depressants but had to wait four months to see a psychiatrist.

"They give you a month's supply because they assume you will see somebody from the VA," Russell said. "That's why people are killing themselves, that's why they are going nuts, because when you are off your medication, it goes downhill really fast."

The problem was less acute among existing VA patients: About 20,000 appointments out of nearly 444,000 statewide weren't scheduled within 30 days.

Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn decried the fact that more than 100,000 veterans nationwide faced wait times over 90 days for their initial medical appointment, or hadn't had an appointment in 10 years.

"This report makes it clear that the only people benefiting from our current VA health care system are the bureaucrats who put their own bonuses over veterans' care," Cornyn said in a statement.