Mountain Home VA Medical Center Director Charlene Ehret speaks with members of the media at a press conference called Tuesday to address findings in a nationwide audit of the Veterans Affairs system. (Ron Campbell / Johnson City Press)
In response to a nationwide audit of the Veterans Affairs medical system, leaders of the Mountain Home VA Medical Center in Johnson City said wait times for some local patients need improvement, but said the facility has not been implicated in wrongdoing uncovered at other hospitals elsewhere in the country.
The audit, released Monday by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, puts Mountain Home’s average wait time for new patients seeking specialty care, at 67.42 days, as the ninth longest in the country out of 153 medical centers. The audit also shows average wait times for new patients seeking primary care to be 61.66 days, among the longest 20 wait times in the country.
Speaking at a press conference called Tuesday to address the report, Medical Center Director Charlene Ehret said many of the wait times past 60 days can be attributed to a growing number of patients seeking optometry and audiology services in Knoxville, where Mountain Home has been unable to provide facilities and physicians to match demand.
“A large number of those patients are at our Knoxville clinic, where we are very limited on space,” she told reporters and staff in a conference room deep inside the Johnson City hospital. “We have shoehorned as many people as we can into that facility, we have an annex and we’re attempting to get a new lease to expand even further. One of the deficits is that we need a new eye clinic, we need new space, and audiology requires sound booths for their services.”
Last year, Mountain Home affiliated physicians conducted more than 600,000 appointments with 55,000 veterans living in the system’s service area.
Stephen Hillis, the facility’s chief business officer, underlined the frequent quality of service awards given to Mountain Home, and said that even when given the choice, a vast majority of patients opted to wait longer for service rather than visit an outside physician.
“We have adopted a practice that we offer non-VA care to any patient who is extended beyond the 90-day window, which is our target initially,” he said. “In most cases, the predominance of the patients are comfortable with waiting, because they prefer to keep their care within the VA facility.”
On May 1, Mountain Home staff contacted approximately 2,000 patients who crossed the 90-day threshold to offer outside care. According to Hillis, more than 88 percent of the patients contacted chose to keep their appointments with VA physicians.
Ehret also added that the administration is working to address the long wait times for specialty care, noting that a new clinic is expected to open in Campbell County next week, and the clinic in Sevierville is adding physicians, both to take in patients from the Knoxville area.
Some good news was reported in the audit for the local system, namely that staff at Mountain Home were not implicated in schemes to set up secret waiting lists outside the electronic scheduling system, sometimes in exchange for bribes.
“We are very happy and very proud that we are not one of the 112 facilities that are going to be revisited by the Inspector General,” Ehret said. “We did not know that until we got the report yesterday. We think that we have sent the right message that honesty and integrity is important to us, that we do not want to falsify any data, and we think the report has confirmed that.”
On the same day that the local VA leaders were discussing the audit’s results, the members of the U.S. House voted unanimously to pass the Veteran Access to Care Act, which would require a VA hospital to allow any enrolled veteran who can’t get an appointment within defined goals or who lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility to seek care from private physicians at the VA Department’s expense.
Local Rep. Phil Roe applauded the passage of the bill from Washington, saying the legislation offered a “simple solution to a deadly problem.”
Ehret said the local VA center already spends approximately $42 million per year to help patients receive outside services in the surrounding community, and the system is appreciative to those health care professionals who provide service to veterans.
“But our mission is to provide health care that is preferred by veterans,” she said. “And we do have one of the highest patient satisfaction rates in the country.”
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Mountain Home VA Medical Center administrators pointed to patient growth in the Knoxville area in explaining longer than average wait times for new patients seeking primary and specialty care outlined in statistics released this week by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The audit containing the wait time information was initiated after staff at some medical centers in the VA system were found to be circumventing the electronic wait list, and in some cases, using a secret wait lists and taking bribes to move patients ahead of others.
At a called press conference Tuesday, Medical Center Director Charlene Ehret said the nationwide audit and investigation found no evidence that secret waiting lists were employed at Mountain Home, and said the Johnson City facility was not one of those on the list to be revisited by federal investigators.
The average wait time for specialty care at Mountain Home, 67 days, according to the audit, was mostly driven by the facility's lack of clinical space in Knoxville, especially for optometrists and audiologists, the director said.
To answer those lengthy waits, Ehret said Mountain Home plans to open a new clinic Monday in Campbell County and has plans to expand its Sevierville clinic space to allow new physicians to take up residence there.
Mountain Home consistently receives quality and patient satisfaction awards, and Ehret said she stands by the service provided by the facility's medical and support staff.
More of this story alongside statistics from the audit will appear in Wednesday's print edition.