JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - Lawmakers are working to provide an alternative for veterans who had to wait a long time for care at veteran affairs facilities across the country.
On Tuesday, Congress unanimously passed legislation that would allow those veterans to get VA-paid treatment from local doctors.
This follows an audit of VA hospitals that found Mountain Home in Johnson City ranked ninth in the nation for one of the longest wait times for new patients needing specialist care.
Administrators say the wait time for specialty clinics is 67 days.
Long waits for specialty care. It's the message people are hearing nationwide from veteran affairs hospitals, and Mountain Home in Johnson City is no exception. "For a patient who is new to primary care or new to the system, or has never been seen in a VA, then there are going to be waiting times," says Charlene Ehret.
Public Affairs Officer Judy Fowler says no deaths were caused by the long wait times.
Chief Business Officer for the hospital, Stephen Hillis, says currently there 59 veterans waiting for primary care at Mountain Home facilities.
He says 51 veterans have been on the list at least seven days, five have been waiting 15 to 30 days, and three have waited over 30 days. "We've hired additional providers we've opened new clinics within this facility so we continue to look at our demand and our growth," adds Ehret.
Director of Mountain Home Health Care System Charlene Ehret says many veterans from the Knoxville area are coming to Johnson City for treatment which is increasing their wait times.
We asked why the increased wait time for specialists. Ehret says the services provided by specialists like optometrists and audiologists are in high demand for an aging veteran population who are guaranteed this coverage.
We also found out from the hospital's chief business officer that 88 percent of the veterans waiting for service at Mountain Home decided to stay on the list. "Any patient that was beyond the 90-day window, we contacted them and gave them an option. Would they prefer us to see about setting something up in the community, or do they want to keep their current appointment," says Hillis.
Ehret also tells us they have not used any false data like the nationwide audit claimed happened at some facilities. "We were pleased to see that the report found that none of the falsify or fraudulent data was being used," she said.
Administration officers say they are working to open a new clinic with a new team in Campbell County, Tennessee. They are also working to expand services in Sevierville which should help cut down on wait times at all Mountain Home Facilities.
Ehret also says they have added staff to dermatology, dentist, and orthopedic surgeons, which they hope will cut down on wait times.
We discovered in the VA's report, Mountain Home is not one of the 112 VA sites flagged for a follow-up investigation.
We also checked and learned in Johnson City no patients are on the mental health waiting list.