Thousands of veterans left without doctor in NM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Officials at a Veterans Affairs
medical center in Albuquerque say as many as 3,000 patients were
assigned to a doctor who didn’t actually see them, a New Mexico
congresswoman said Wednesday.
The officials told U.S. Rep.
Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., that the practice of putting patients
without primary care doctors into a separate pool was part of an effort
to balance demand and a shortage of doctors at a facility that handled
nearly 660,000 outpatient visits last year.
They said the health
of patients was monitored and those who needed urgent care were seen
either in clinics, emergency rooms or squeezed onto the schedule of
another doctor, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether the practice put
any veterans at risk.
It also wasn’t clear how long they waited
to be assigned to a doctor. Officials said the practice began in summer
2012 and lasted until January 2014, but they have not said what prompted
the end of the program.
The congressional staffers were told
nearly two-thirds of patients at the Albuquerque VA medical center are
seen within a 14-day window, but Lujan Grisham questioned the data given
that VA officials weren’t initially forthcoming about the patient pool.
The
disclosure of the separate patient pool, which was managed though the
local VA’s computer system, comes as the Veterans Affairs Department
grapples with allegations that secret waiting lists and delayed care
sometimes led to the death of veterans in other states.
The
congresswoman said she has asked for more information from VA officials,
including the results of an internal review. "We want everything, and I
don’t think we should stop until there’s no stone left unturned," she
said.
A VA spokeswoman didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment Wednesday.
The Albuquerque Journal first reported on the practice by the Albuquerque medical center last week.
The
scrutiny began after a federal investigation into the troubled Phoenix
VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care
were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off an
electronic waiting list.
Details about scheduling problems at
other VA facilities have continued to surface since the investigation
began. The probe has found widespread problems throughout a health care
system that provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans
annually.
An official with the VA medical center in Wichita,
Kansas, said Wednesday that 385 veterans appeared on an unauthorized
list of those waiting for care and an unknown number of those veterans
waited longer than 90 days for treatment.
The VA maintained 10
secret waiting lists of veterans seeking care at facilities in Kansas,
Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, according to VA letters released this
week. The letters also said at least 96 veterans waited more than 90
days for treatment at seven facilities in those states.
Regarding
health care delays in southwestern Illinois, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus said
officials had assured him last week there were no scheduling delay
problems. The Republican said Wednesday he surprised to learn otherwise
this week. A development, he said, that "raises more questions."
Lujan
Grisham said she was dismayed to learn of the separate patient pool a
week after meeting with local officials and being assured there were no
secret waiting lists or other practices that would affect veterans’
access to care.
She said it will be difficult for the VA to rebut the presumption that information about the patient pool
was purposely hidden.
New
Mexico VA officials told congressional staffers during a conference
call Friday that the practice wasn’t intended to hide patients but
rather to keep track of them until they could be assigned a primary care
doctor. It made it appear the veterans had a primary care physician
when they didn’t.
The medical supervisor assigned to the patient pool didn’t see patients but was available by phone.
"That’s not the same as a primary care appointment," Lujan Grisham said. "I don’t agree
that’s fair access."
Among
the things Lujan Grisham is trying to find out is how many calls the
medical supervisor handled, whether that information made it into the
veterans’ medical records and if serious cases were reassigned to
doctors who could see the patients.
James Robbins, interim
director of the New Mexico Veterans Affairs medical center, told
congressional staffers during last week’s briefing he only learned of
the practice recently, according to Lujan Grisham’s office.
The New Mexico VA website lists more than 480 doctors, dentists, nurses and other licensed practitioners.

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