VA patient numbers jump after efforts to improve medical access

by Vern Evans

Veterans Affairs medical sites saw a spike in patient visits and drop in wait times over the first half of the new fiscal year, thanks to the addition of more night and weekend appointments, department officials announced Tuesday.

The expanded medical offerings — part of the department’s Access Sprints initiative — comes amid an aggressive push by VA leaders to bring more veterans into their system for health care following expanded eligibility for benefits as part of comprehensive military toxic exposure legislation passed in 2022.

Since March 5, all veterans who served in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, or any combat zone after Sept. 11, 2001, are eligible to enroll directly in VA health care without first applying for disability benefits.

Through the first five months of fiscal 2024 — which began last October — new patient appointments are up 11% at VA medical centers, officials said. More than 80% of all sites have seen their total number of patients increase over that time compared to a year earlier.

In addition, VA leaders said they saw 12% fewer new patients waiting for appointments beyond department guidelines.

Officials said the Access Sprint initiative was the result of feedback from local VA facilities and regional networks looking for ways to improve timeliness, efficiency, capacity and employee experience.

Now, leaders are hoping to continue those offerings.

VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said that some of the changes required extra staff or overtime work, but most of the services were designed to be sustainable into future months.

“We’re asking every medical center and network to look very closely at what they can continue, especially since we discovered that we can see many more veterans with these improvements,” he said.

Department planners are looking to trim about 10,000 medical positions through attrition this year, but Elnahal said he does not expect that to impact any patient care capacity.

Veterans interested in signing up for VA health care can contact their local medical center or visit the department’s website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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