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June 13, 2014 6:16 PM Just how long are those wait times at the VA really?

By Phillip Longman

You probably saw headlines earlier this week like this one from CNN

“Audit: More than 120,000 veterans waiting or never got care”

Sounds pretty bad, and so does the lede CNN used:

Washington (CNN) — An internal Veterans Affairs audit released Monday said tens of thousands of newly returning veterans wait at least 90 days for medical care, while even more who signed up in the VA system over the past 10 years never got an immediate appointment they requested.

Want to know what that audit actually shows? Click here (pdf), or trust me to give you the main findings and some context:

* It shows that in 96 percent of cases, when vets seek a doctors appointment at the VA, they get one within 30 days.

* It shows that even at the Phoenix VA, which is supposedly ground zero of the VA scandal, 89 percent of people enrolled in the system get an appointment in less than 30 days, with the average wait for established patients to see a primary care doc coming to just over 14 days.

* Most everywhere else in the VA system, average wait times for established patients to see a primary care doc are in the range of 2 to 4 days, as are waiting times to receive specialty care.

Bear in mind, these are the audited numbers, not juked stats submitted by frontline employees trying to satisfy a performance metric. So what’s up with the way CNN, and many other organs of the mainstream media, covered this story?

The audit does show that as of May 15, there were 57,436 vets systemwide who had been waiting for an appointment for 90 days or more. Contrary to CNN’s reporting, the audit does not indicate how many were “newly returning.” Many if not most are probably Vietnam-era veterans, who have been surging to join the VA in large numbers due to recently relaxed eligibility rules. CNN also fails to gives any sense of proportion. Yes, the number of people waiting for 90 days or more is way too high, but before we use it to dismantle the VA, let’s put it in context. It amounts to less than one percent of the some 6 million vets who got appointments in less time—hardly a systematic breakdown.

And what about those vets who CNN says have been waiting more than ten years for an appointment? The audit turned up the the names of 63,869 people who had signed up for VA care sometime over the last ten years but who for unspecified reasons never were seen by a VA doctor. No doubt some of these people truly were waiting for an appointment and got lost in the system. But no doubt, too, many of those people were not waiting for an appointment.

Their ranks surely include, for example, people who enrolled at the local VA but who then wound up moving to a different city before making an appointment, or who got a job with group health insurance. Their ranks no doubt also include many vets who, following advice commonly given to people leaving the military, enrolled with the VA just to be sure that they would be grandfathered in should eligibility rules be tightened again as they were during the Bush years.

In other words, CNN just flat out made up the part about the auditors finding tens of thousands of vets who have been waiting for up to ten years to get an “appointment they requested.” All the audit actually finds is that there are “63,869 who over the past ten years have enrolled in our healthcare system and have not been seen for an appointment.” And the really obnoxious part is, CNN has the gaul to claim that the political damage it is doing to the VA with such distorted coverage is somehow of benefit to veterans.

Phillip Longman is a senior editor at the Washington Monthly and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches health care policy. He is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, where Atul Gawande is a board member.

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