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N.Y. lawmakers say Shinseki had to go, more work needed at VA

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WATERTOWN — North country lawmakers agreed Friday that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki had to go, and they called for more action to determine the root of mismanagement that has delayed the care of veterans nationwide.

U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, described Mr. Shinseki’s resignation as “unfortunately the right move.”

“He’s had a lifetime of service to the country, but sometimes when the agency you’re the head of isn’t performing, there needs to be a shakeup in management,” he said.

With the distraction of negative attention toward Mr. Shinseki put aside, Mr. Owens said, he hoped President Obama and other leaders take steps to reform the system.

“This is a monumental task, and it’s a monumental obligation,” Mr. Owens said. “There will be more and more veterans seeking care. We need to have the facilities and people in place to provide it.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer called Mr. Shinseki “a true patriot” in a statement Friday, and speculated the secretary resigned because he realized “that the buck stops at the top and that accountability in government is vital.”

The office of Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand issued a statement saying more work was necessary beyond replacing Mr. Shinseki to determine the depth of the department’s problems.

“We need to fix the system and hold all those responsible accountable,” her statement read.

Though the scheduling problems found in Phoenix have not been found in the north country, VA statistics paint a mixed picture of local veteran care, improving in some areas and faltering in others. However, some issues appear to be consistent with struggles of health care providers regionally.

VA statistics showed an average wait time for nonemergency appointments at the Watertown Community Based Outpatient Clinic, at the CANI Building, 19472 Route 11, was 35 days for primary care in April, up from 20 days in April 2013. The wait was 19 days for specialty care, up from 10 the year before. For mental health care, patients waited an average of 22 days to get an appointment, much less than the 42-day average wait reported for April 2013.

The goal is to get emergency care patients seen immediately, and nonemergency patients seen within 14 days. Those waiting longer are tracked by the department to ensure their appointment. Robert McLean, Syracuse VA spokesman, said in an email that wait times can vary based on demand and staff availability.

The wait times at the Watertown VA clinic are comparable to civilian medical wait times for those without a primary care provider, said Denise K. Young, executive director of the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization.

“A few weeks is probably not unusual,” she said.

Mrs. Young said most of the feedback she has received about the VA clinic has been positive, particularly after early 2013, when the clinic shifted providers and expanded its space in the CANI Building. Several veterans and military-affiliated agencies in the Watertown area said earlier this month they were mostly satisfied with the care they received and the wait times for their care.

Mr. Owens said some issues were indicative of a provider shortage in the region. He said the movement of some VA patients to civilian providers could help veteran care and reduce travel times, and aid the bottom line of participating facilities.

With in-person reviews taking place at VA clinics nationwide, Mr. McLean said that all of the area’s facilities have been reviewed except for the facility in Massena, which will be inspected Tuesday. Though the nationwide review has not been completed, Mr. McLean wrote that the Syracuse VA and its affiliated clinics have been found to follow national scheduling procedures.

The VA also runs outpatient clinics in Malone, Oswego, Rome and Saranac Lake.

Department of Defense statistics released by Fort Drum earlier this year show there are 2,615 retirees from all branches of the military living within the 136XX zip code.

LOCAL WAIT TIMES
For non-emergency appointments at the VA’s Watertown Community Based Outpatient Clinic, with the goal of taking patients within 14 days:
PRIMARY CARE April 2013: 20 days April 2014: 35 days
SPECIALTY CARE April 2013: 10 days April 2014: 19 days
MENTAL HEALTH CARE April 2013: 42 days April 2014: 22 days
Information provided by the Syracuse office of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
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