Wait times at Farmington veterans clinic among worst in U.S.

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Veterans' wait times to see a doctor in Farmington are some of the longest in the nation.

A study looking into the number of veterans stuck on waiting lists to see doctors nationwide by The Associated Press revealed the Farmington VA clinic was the sixth worst in the country for wait times.

Of the clinics the AP examined between Sept. 1, 2014, and Feb. 28, veterans seeking treatment in Farmington had to wait more than 31 days 14 percent of the time — a rate that is more than five times the national average. The VA's goal of reducing the amount of time veterans have to wait to see a doctor has not been met, something veterans officials say they are striving to change.

William Armstrong, a public affairs specialist with the New Mexico Veterans Affairs Health Care System, said efforts to further address that issue, which impacts more than 60,000 veterans in New Mexico, are underway, including a visit to the Farmington clinic by a team of VA officials to look into the appointment processes and lend some help to the staff.

"Our team visited the Farmington VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic last Thursday, April 2," Armstrong said in an email on Wednesday. "The team included our Chief of Health Administrative Services and our Associate Chief Nurse from our Ambulatory Care Service."

Armstrong said the Albuquerque-based VA Health Care System does not yet have any information or conclusions based on the visit.

The Farmington clinic is currently staffed with two full-time physicians, a full-time psychiatrist, one part-time psychologist, three registered nurses (including clinic director Sharon Wimer-Norton), one medical support assistant, two health technicians, two licensed practical nurses, one Veterans Justice Outreach program social worker, a social worker who specializes in working with homeless veterans and one regular social worker, Armstrong said.

To address the scandal over long delays at veterans facilities nationwide, Congress last summer allocated $16.3 billion to hire more doctors and expand programs, of which the state VA Health Care System got about $6.7 million.

Programs like the Veterans Choice Program, which was launched a few months ago, aim to place a greater number of sick veterans with doctors outside the VA system if wait times exceed 30 days. That program was recently expanded by changing the eligibility determination based on driving distance to a VA medical facility. Sonja Brown, a spokeswoman for the state VA Health Care System, said that move would help veterans in New Mexico, many of whom live in rural areas, making doctor visits difficult.

"When looking at our Farmington (clinic), we have found that many of our veteran patients are walk-ins, meaning they may not have an appointment but still request to be seen that day," Brown said in an email on Wednesday.

But poor recruitment of doctors can mean some clinics — there are 13 rural veterans clinics in the state — have struggled to maintain adequate staffing levels, despite incentives like increased pay and student loan repayment assistance.

"New Mexico in general is an underserved health care area," Brown said. "We understand the challenges with that, and we are doing everything possible to make those positions more attractive."

Vietnam veteran Tom Smith, a readjustment counseling therapist at the Farmington Vet Center, said he has seen an uptick in the number of military clients he counsels at the center over the last year. But he said he wasn't aware the clinic, which is tucked behind the Animas Valley Mall, was struggling to keep pace with the number of local veterans who need to see a doctor.

"Just this morning, one of the guys I saw told me this, but I was unaware of it," Smith said. "I do, however, hear a lot from veterans who complain about what they say is inadequate service from VA Health Care, but I also hear the direct opposite, too, and all points within that spectrum, I suppose."

Some data on visitation rates in the VA health care system suggests the rate of long delays for medical appointments may be improving. February numbers at clinics throughout New Mexico were slightly better, according to the VA's statistics.

Brown said if veterans have difficulty getting a timely appointment, they should call the VA at 1-800-465-8262 or 505-265-1711 and press 3 for immediate help.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.