COLUMBIA - The Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia has reached out to veterans, added staff and extended clinic hours to add 1,700 new appointments in coming weeks for veterans awaiting care, acting Veteran Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson said Wednesday.
The new steps mean wait times for prospective patients have dropped from an average of about 77 to 53 days, Sloan and other VA officials told reporters following the official's visit.
Gibson said that while improvements have been made, more work is needed to improve patient care in the veteran's health care system.
He said veterans' trust has been eroded by the scandal over long patient waits and falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics across the country.
"I am sorry we let you down," Gibson said to veterans and their families, adding that he is intent on working to address veterans' concerns and improve their care.
Trust, he said, "will be earned back one veteran at a time."
Sloan called recent problems registered at Dorn "serious," but ones that can be addressed and improved. He cited in particular the delayed screenings for colorectal cancer that a report by the VA inspector general linked to dozens of malignancies and six deaths.
A VA audit in June showed that patients seeking care at Dorn waited an average of 77 days for their first appointment with a primary care doctor - five times longer than the department's goal. Dorn's average was the sixth-highest in the nation. In Charleston, new patients waited an average of 45 days for an initial appointment at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, the same report showed. A VA facility in Honolulu, Hawaii, had the country's longest wait time, at 145 days.
Nationally, more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for medical appointments, according to the audit. An additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA health care over the past decade have never been seen by a doctor, the audit reported.
The June audit showed that more than 900 patients at Dorn had been waiting 90 days or longer for medical appointments. At the VA in Charleston, more than 100 patients posted appointment wait times of 90 days of more.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30 after taking the blame for what he decried as a "lack of integrity" in the sprawling system providing health care to the nation's military veterans.
Gibson said the medical center has added several new physicians and nurses, and has more going through a pre-hiring screening process.
He said officials have reached out to about 3,800 veterans to address their health needs.
While Dorn has added new clinic space in recent months, Gibson said, "That's still not enough. Space is still a problem here."
The acting secretary said he was upset by the recent reports in Washington of whistleblowers being silenced or punished, adding, "creating an environment where people are afraid to raise their hands is just not smart."
He said he intends to hold VA officials accountable for improving veterans' care and insisted that the VA "will come out better" after having been through this crisis.