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Delays in care at Syracuse VA due to an 'anomaly,' health center says

Ryan Delaney
The main entrance to the Syracuse VA Medical Center.

The Syracuse VA Medical Center is seeing more than nine in 10 patients in a timely fashion, according to a review of six months of patient appointment records, but an “anomaly” in one area of care shows veterans waiting more than three months to be seen by a doctor.

About 2,000 veterans seek care at the VA medical center in Syracuse each month and according to appointment records compiled by the Associated Press, only four or five percent of those patients experience delays in getting appointments. To compare, at some VA hospitals in the nation, a fifth of all patients are stalled.

The VA says those delays largely have to do with specialty care. One area in particular is throwing off its numbers, spokesman Robert McLean says. "The bulk of those patients are dental patients," he said in an interview.

More than 100 patients at the Syracuse VA medical center had to wait more than 90 days for care in five out of the six months looked at.

In January, 170 patients were delayed more than three months. The lowest month was November, with 93 delayed patients. No other medical center in New York state came close to those numbers. The next highest 90-day delay total was the Buffalo VAMC, with 58 patients.

McLean says appointment delays largely have to do with the nature of dental care. Often appointments for routine cleanings and the like are made six months out.

"We have an anomaly in the way we schedule dental appointments," he said, "which we are correcting."

He says the VA has hired an additional fulltime dentist. And they’re expanding the busy Watertown clinic -- one of seven the Syracuse VA operates.

The office in Watertown treats about 4,100 veterans in the North Country, according to McLean. The AP data shows the Watertown clinic is one of the busiest in the state. Watertown also has some of the longest delays in care for veterans looking to get an appointment at a community clinic. It missed its completed appointments window about five percent of the time, according to the data.

The larger clinic will allow patients to get faster and more complex care, McLean said.

"One of the things we try to do with our community-based outpatient clinics is reduce to the extent we can, the need for veterans to travel great distances. Watertown can be a challenge from the weather point of view."

McLean says the VA is also increasing its use of tele-medicine, where patients can video chat with doctors. Along with the bigger facility, a new health care provider will staff the Watertown clinic.

Health care for veterans has been under intense scrutiny for more than a year. The VA has been exposed for taking too long to process paperwork. And it was revealed some medical centers were lying about how quickly they were see patients in need of care.

Since then the VA has made changes to its procedures in hopes of improving access. McLean says the Syracuse facility and the outpatient clinics it oversees get data on patient care in near real time numbers.

"So it’s a continuous monitoring operation. And we evaluate each facility on a daily basis to determine what we need to do," he said.

The AP reviewed care at more than 900 facilities, including full medical centers and small clinics from September through February. While delays at the Syracuse facility were slightly above that overall average, they trended down during that six month period. 

Here is the completed appointment data on New York's VA medical centers (VAMC) and community clinics (CBOC):