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Maine Improves Wait Times for Veteran Care

Terry Ross
Flickr/Creative Commons
The Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta, building 205, in 2006.

More Maine veterans are getting medical care in a timely fashion, according to the director of the state Veterans Affairs health care system. The update comes as the national VA has come under fire in recent months for perpetual problems in ensuring veterans get appointments in days, not months.

About 99 percent of Maine veterans who schedule medical appointments see their doctor within 30 days, according to state VA health care system director Ryan Lilly.

“The national average is a little under 97 percent, so we’re doing better than the national average here in Maine,” he says.

The reason why Maine has improved its wait times for veterans? More staff, says Lilly.

“Since Oct. 1, we’ve added about 45 staff, most of those in direct care positions, serving patients, improving access,” he says.

While that’s helped many patients, Lilly says the VA’s current challenge is to reduce wait times for patients who need specialty care.

“Where we have access challenges are where the private sector has access challenges, like neurology and dermatology,” he says.

One way the federal VA has tried to reduce wait times that can last months is through the Veteran’s Choice program. It allows veterans who can’t get an appointment within 30 days to receive care from a private medical practice.

The program is just two years old, but it hasn’t elicited the expected results. Some veterans have waited even longer for appointments.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District says she’s received a number of complaints from constituents.

“Calls from people complaining that they’re not able to schedule appointments, or that it takes a really long time to get appointments,” she says. “Also one of the concerns was around making sure providers were getting their payments.”

These issues have been blamed largely on the two private companies that administer the Choice program, including Health Net, which administers the program in Maine. But Lilly says the program has improved in Maine because a Health Net employee now works on site.

“So our staff can directly contact that person. Patients, if they come into the building, they can walk right up and talk to that person,” he says.

Chellie Pingree says she’s receiving fewer complaints about Veteran’s Choice.

“That said, I think we still believe this contract should be rebid, and the company should have to explain why it’s taken them so long to fix it, why it took them so long to put an employee in Maine, and how they’re going to make sure these things don’t happen in the future,” she says.

Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District said in a written statement that he’s encouraged by the improvements at the VA. But, he said, there’s “no question that our Veterans are not always receiving the high quality and timely care that they deserve and there is much more work to be done to improve services.”