In a state that prides itself on access to great health care, wait times at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics vary widely, with some facilities in central and western Massachusetts delaying appointments at much higher rates than in the affluent east.
Nearly 9,000 medical appointments at VA facilities in Massachusetts - about 2 percent of the state's total during the six-month period ending in February- failed to meet the department's goal of completing medical appointments within 30 days.
That's better than the national average of 2.8 percent, but nearly half the delays in Massachusetts occurred at only three of the state's 20 facilities, according to government data reviewed by the Associated Press.
"We're working to get the veterans into their appointments in a more timely manner. It's a work in progress."Dennis Ramstein, Central Western Mass. VA spokesman
The AP analysis of six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide found that the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has stayed flat since Congress began pumping $16.3 billion dollars into the VA system in August. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.
Many of the delay-prone hospitals and clinics are clustered within a few hours' drive of each other in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA's sluggish planning process.
Waits in the Northeast were generally better, but the Central Western Massachusetts VA in Leeds saw nearly double the national rate of delays - about 5.5 percent - for its 48,879 appointments. At the Worcester VA, nearly 6.2 percent of the 20,761 appointments completed there took longer than 30 days.
Dennis Ramstein, spokesman for the Central Western Massachusetts VA, said the agency has hired more medical personnel and has a new director, John Collins, with a health care background in the US Army including as former chief operating officer for the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Collins, who also receives health care services through the VA, has made lowering wait times a top priority, Ramstein said.
"We're working to get the veterans into their appointments in a more timely manner," Ramstein said. "It's a work in progress and definitely moving forward."
One of the top performing clinics in the state was the VA clinic on Causeway Street in Boston. Of the 24,041 completed appointments during the six-month period, all but 74 - about 0.3 percent - were completed within the 30-day window.
The busiest facility in the state, the VA hospital in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, had one of the better timeliness records in Massachusetts. Of the more than 112,000 appointments made during the six-month period, just 1 percent took longer than 30 days.
The highest percentage of patients that had to wait longer than 30 days occurred at the VA clinic in Plymouth. Of the 1,300 appointments completed there during the six-month period, 128 - or 9.8 percent - took more than 30 days.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, said Massachusetts is ready to help the VA further reduce wait times by incorporating the state's private health care providers into the system where needed.
"Massachusetts is way past where many other states are in terms of making private providers available to veterans in situations where they either have expertise that's not available through the VA ... or they have waiting time issues that they want to address," Baker said.