Puget Sound VA officials say they are having some success in one of the faster-growing veterans’ health-care systems in the nation.
The Puget Sound VA continues to be one of the fastest-growing health-care systems in the Department of Veterans Affairs network, with a total patient count growing by 11 percent during the past two years.
Despite the rapid increase, VA officials say that they have made progress on reducing wait times for mental-health services at their clinics. These wait times average two days for nonemergency appointments, compared to a five-day national average.
“We’ve got a few areas where we are shining here, and this is one, and it’s an important one,” said Chad Hutson, a spokesman for the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.
Hutson joined regional VA leaders Wednesday to make the case that there has been some success here in the Puget Sound area for the beleaguered agency.
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The briefing came just two days after Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, ripped into the VA during a speech in Virginia. He called the scandals that have unfolded under the Obama administration “widespread and inexcusable,” and outlined a reform plan that would give all veterans the option of private care.
Two years ago, one of those scandals put a harsh spotlight on VA wait times that sometimes stretched for months for essential care for sick veterans. Congress then passed a $10 billion Choice program to give some veterans the kind of private-care option proposed by Trump.
Under the program, veterans with an appointment wait time of more than 30 days, or those who lived more than 40 miles from VA services, could be referred to private providers.
But that program has not gone well.
A National Public Radio investigative series found it was hastily set up and hamstrung by a myriad problems.
Currently, there are even more veterans nationwide waiting at least 30 days for appointments than before passage of the legislation.
Within the Puget Sound area, the VA health-care system includes the Seattle hospital complex, American Lake hospital and seven clinics that collectively see more than 100,000 patients. Since the startup of Choice, some 35,000 veterans in this region also have been referred to private health-care providers.
The program ran into problems here as elsewhere because the contractor charged with carrying it out lacked enough private health-care providers, according to VA Puget Sound acting Director Michael Tadych.
Since this spring, Tadych said the situation has improved as the contractor, TriWest Healthcare Alliance, was able to expand the network through an agreement with the University of Washington.
Puget Sound VA officials on Wednesday also talked about the wide-ranging work done with a pain-management program to offer alternative treatments that include acupuncture, yoga, tai chi and meditation.
There also has been a big push to reduce the use of opioids that can lead to addiction and deadly overdoses.
“We have seen a three-year steady decrease,” said Dr. Tim Dawson, who directs the pain management program.
Elsewhere within the Puget Sound-based VA system, the Veterans Benefits Administration has largely completed a massive transformation from paper-based files to computer files.
That can help speed up processing, tracking and analysis of benefits, according to VA officials.
But the Seattle Veterans Benefits Administration also has had problems involving the use of unqualified medical personnel to evaluate veterans with traumatic brain injury who seek to qualify for disability payments.
VA rules required that only a psychiatrist, physiatrist, neurosurgeon or neurologist conduct exams for veterans who have yet to receive a diagnosis.
In June, the VA announced that more than 24,000 veterans nationwide received evaluations by medical providers who lacked those qualifications, and would be eligible for new evaluations.
The Seattle office had 2,076 veterans who were examined by unqualified personnel, the third-highest number of any VA office in the nation, according to VA documents.
“This is a very important issue and getting it right is critical,” said Pritz Navaratnasingam, the Seattle regional director.
Information in this article, originally published July 13, 2016, was corrected July 14, 2016. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Dr. Tim Dawson’s last name.