Patient Care Access News

VA Tool Shows Vets Healthcare Access, Care Quality Information

The VA's new patient-facing tool will offer veterans wait time and healthcare access information to help them make individual treatment choices.

The VA has created an online tool to support patient treatment choices using healthcare access and wait time data.

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- The VA Health Administration has launched an online quality of care and healthcare access tool to empower patients with more information to make better treatment choices.

The tool allows patients to view and compare various aspects of healthcare at local VA facilities, including the following:

  • How long patients are waiting to be seen in their VA facility
  • How veterans describe their experiences scheduling primary and specialty care
  • Timeliness of appointments for care needed right away
  • Information about the quality of healthcare delivered at every medical center compared to local private sector hospitals

The VA calculated patient experience with appointment scheduling by surveying at least 30 patients per care site about their experiences. The tool displays the percentage of patients who reported that they always or usually obtain an appointment when needed.

The agency established the tool to help simplify veteran healthcare access, the VA said. Patients often have trouble assessing the quality of care and appointment wait times, making it difficult for veterans to select the best treatment option for their individual needs.

This tool will boil down that complex care quality, patient satisfaction, and wait time information into a digestible report to help patients make treatment decisions, the VA reported.

Using a map interface, patients can assess wait time and quality of care information compared to other facilities in the area or across the country. Patients can sort their care options by both wait time and care quality ranking, as well as by distance from the veteran’s home.

While the tool is currently available to all veterans, VA employees, family members, and others, it is still a work in progress, the VA explained. The VA intends to revise the tool to make it more navigable for veterans as various stakeholders offer feedback to the agency.

Establishing this tool is a part of the agency’s plan to restore the trust of veterans and the general public, which has been waning in recent years due to several healthcare access issues throughout the agency.

In 2014, the VA experienced several issues regarding inaccurate appointment wait time reports, which ultimately led to then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation. At that time, it came to light that VA leadership offered misleading reports about veteran wait times. The agency often scheduled patients for appointments at facilities that did not exist or booked multiple patients for the same appointments.

Since then, the VA has made several efforts to improve veteran wait times, including establishing the Veterans Choice Program. Through Choice, veterans who face extraordinary barriers to VA facilities access – long wait times, extreme travel, or unoffered services – may access treatment at non-VA facilities.

However, the Veterans Choice Program has not been entirely successful. A March 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that veterans accessing care through Choice still faced wait times of up to 81 days, far longer than the agency’s standard 30-day maximum wait time.

These long appointment wait times are due to the convoluted protocol in the Choice Program, GAO found. The VA must go through an often-lengthy back-and-forth with non-VA facilities to schedule a Veterans Choice appointment, GAO reported.

Despite those complications, Congress approved an extension for the Veterans Choice Program with the hopes that the agency will be able to refine the program, according to multiple sources. The program was scheduled to expire in August, 2017, but will continue to receive government funding to continue its work with veterans.

Ideally, the VA’s new patient-facing tool will also help improve veteran care experiences by putting some power back into veteran hands. By empowering patients with more information about wait times and care quality, veterans can make their own choices about treatment as it pertains to their individual patient preferences.

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