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Wait times up in last year, according to Puget Sound VA

Despite a big push to hire more staff, Puget Sound VA officials say average wait times for a primary-care appointment rose during the past year from just under eight days to 11 days.

But they have had greater success offering Western Washington veterans quick access to mental-health services. They say veterans typically see a mental-health provider with little more than a one-day wait, far better than the national average of almost five days.

These statistical snapshots released Wednesday offer regional insights into the problems and progress made over the past year since Robert McDonald, a West Point graduate and former Proctor & Gamble chief executive, became secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Last summer, the VA was rocked by scandal arising from efforts to conceal long patient wait times through false record keeping, a tactic uncovered at the Phoenix VA that launched a national review. The VA also was struggling with long-standing delays in processing disability and other benefits.

The VA continues to face tough scrutiny in Congress, where House investigators have dug into cost overruns on construction, the agency’s efforts to hold leaders accountable and many other issues.

To mark the end of his first year of leadership, McDonald asked department officials around the country to meet with the media to talk about how they’re doing.

Both nationally and regionally, VA officials say some of the biggest improvements have come in processing benefits claims. Since March 2013, they say the Seattle office backlog of disability claims pending for more than 120 days fell by 90 percent as of July 18 this year.

Pritz Navaratnasingam, director of the Seattle regional office of the Veterans Benefits Administration, says some of the progress results from a multiyear computerization effort that is now gaining momentum.

But he also credits the more than 600 employees in the Seattle regional office.

“The technology changes have certainly helped, but the most important resource for the VA is the VA workers, many of whom have been working mandatory overtime for many years,” Navaratnasingam said.

At the Puget Sound Health Care System, the past year has been one of continued growth, with a 6 percent jump in the number of patients using the two hospital hubs in Seattle and American Lake and seven outpatient clinics. The Puget Sound VA has been on a hiring push, but acting director Mike Tadych said it’s been difficult to recruit primary-care doctors.

“There is lots of competition for primary-care (doctors),” Tadych said.

In Washington and around the nation, another big push has been to reduce the number of homeless veterans. Working with community partners in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, VA officials say they have been able to house 639 veterans over the past year.

But the tight housing market has made that job more difficult. Tadych said 130 veterans who have VA housing vouchers still are unable to secure shelter.

“There is a lack of affordable rental units — landlords can kind of name their price for rental units,” Tadych said.

Two veterans advocates in Seattle give the VA mixed reviews for its performance over the past year.

Cyrill Miller, a Seattle-area Army veteran who has watchdogged the VA for more than a decade, says he now has more access to VA officials to air his concerns. “They are trying to listen to us,” Miller said.

But he says that staffing shortages are still a major problem, particularly a lack of nurses in some departments. And he fears that some new staff brought in to make changes won’t stay long enough to see the job through.

Skip Dreps, an Army veteran with the Paralyzed Veterans of America, said he is disappointed with McDonald’s performance.

Dreps said the agency needs a major reorganization that would cut down on the regional bureaucracy and offer more autonomy to VA organizations in Seattle and elsewhere.

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