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Data show medical appointment wait times for Long Island veterans among shortest in the nation

Rick Gales, veterans service officer for the Town

Rick Gales, veterans service officer for the Town of Hempstead, at his office on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Gales says delays that have blighted the reputations of more than a handful of federal Department of Medical Affairs centers and clinics across the country are no problem on Long Island. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

As one local veteran after another tells it, the delays that have blighted the reputations of more than a handful of federal Department of Medical Affairs centers and clinics across the country are no problem on Long Island.

"The wait times you've heard about in places like Phoenix, it's not an issue in this area," said Rick Gales, a former Navy radio man who has been especially dependent on VA care since 2012, when he began a series of intestinal surgeries.

He has been in aftercare ever since, with appointments from gastroenterology and internal medicine to dermatology. He must have his blood sugar monitored for diabetes, which so threatens his feet with infection that he goes to the VA for help with clipping his toenails.

"I've never had to wait," said Gales, of Elmont, and district commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars for Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens.

The VA made monitoring wait times a priority last year, after whistleblowers blamed delays in Phoenix for the deaths of at least 40 veterans.

Federal investigators said the allegations were baseless but found that many of the nation's VA facilities manipulated data to hide long wait times.

Long Island VA facilities do a better job at quickly providing medical appointments for more than 32,300 patients than do facilities in other parts of the country, according to an Associated Press study of from 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide between Sept. 1, 2014 and Feb. 28, 2015.

About 99 percent of appointments at Long Island's only VA Medical Center, located in Northport, were met within the VA's 30-day target. Nationwide, 97.2 percent of VA appointments met the target. Some facilities were much slower. VA patients in Syracuse were more than four times as likely to wait longer than 30 days.

Waits at private medical facilities can be much longer than at their VA counterparts, according to a 2014 survey by health consulting firm Merritt Hawkins. Private sector dermatology patients in the New York City metropolitan area waited 24 days for appointments, according to the survey. Northport's VA dermatology patients waited only 3.55 days, according to officials there.

Critics of wait times include Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He said long waits can discourage recently discharged veterans from seeking treatment for psychological services or service injuries.

"We see time and time again the longer the wait, the higher the risk for homelessness, for incarceration, for family stress, for everything," Rieckhoff said.

New data released by the VA indicates that Long Island's five community-based VA clinics -- from Valley Stream to Riverhead -- posted mostly sterling wait times.

An exception was a Patchogue clinic, which missed the 30-day target for its 4,219 appointments 3.32 percent of the time.

But area clinics did far better than those of similar size in other parts of the country. Nearly 20 percent of patients at a VA clinic in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, waited more than 30 days for appointments.

Only 0.36 percent of the 6,995 appointments at an East Meadow VA clinic missed the 30-day target. Clinics in Bay Shore and Valley Stream were almost as good. The Riverhead clinic met the target in all but 1.28 percent of its 4,065 appointments.

Joe Sledge, an assistant to Northport director Phillip Moschitta, said delays for some specialty services, including dermatology, cardiology and pain management, often exceed the average wait times because of associated physician shortages. Sledge said Patchogue's wait times slipped after a physician there went on extended leave.

Leaders at Long Island veterans organizations said they have long been pleased with the quality and timeliness of VA medical care.

Observers credit several factors.

Northport officials say an aggressive push to scatter community-based medical facilities throughout Long Island gives veterans a wide choice of locations.

Veterans leaders say Moschitta hosts them at monthly meetings, which keeps administrators there on top of potential problems. Sledge is a frequent presence at veterans events across Long Island.

"We see Joe all the time, and he is good at expressing our concerns back to the administration," said Ed Aulman, a veterans advocate and producer of Veterans News, a weekly Long Island public access television program. "He knows us all by name."

Also, the proximity of eight major VA facilities in New York City gives area veterans more options. The VA runs medical centers and clinics in the five boroughs, which posted even better wait-time numbers than Long Island, according to The Associated Press.

In contrast, there are 26 VA medical facilities spread across all of Arizona, an area 100 times the size of Long Island and New York City.

For residents of parts of Navajo County, population 110,000, the nearest VA medical center is a three-hour drive.

"Compared to the stories coming out of Arizona, it's nothing like that here," said Joseph Goovack, commander of the American Legion Post 1812, in Plainview, and also a VA health client. "Everybody's satisfied. "


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