Despite staffing challenges, Phoenix VA earns 4 stars in annual care rating

Veterans' Administration medical centers are notorious for long wait times to see a primary care doctor or specialist, but big improvements are being made.
Updated: Oct. 3, 2023 at 8:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — Pat McBride goes to the Phoenix VA for medical care. “In my two-and-a-half years here, I’ve had four different doctors,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to contact them to talk about anything. You get that wonderful message; our phones are very busy, and sometimes they’ll answer. Sometimes they won’t.”

The Air Force veteran says he’s also struggled to get a certain type of insulin prescribed because it’s not on the VA’s formulary. “When the VA says, ‘Thank you for your service, but we’re not going to listen to what you have to say regarding medication that can help you,’ the thank you runs a little hollow,” McBride added.

Despite the challenges, the VA outperforms non-VA hospitals in recent ratings by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It was the first time CMS included VA facilities in its annual hospital quality star ratings. “The good news is that 67% of VA medical centers score either four or five stars, one of the top two hospital ratings for quality of care, and that’s compared to less than half of private sector medical centers that scored the same,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the Under Secretary for Health at the Veterans Health Administration.

The Phoenix VA earned four stars based on how well it performed in a variety of metrics, including treating heart attacks, pneumonia, readmission rates, and safety of care. The VA Northern Arizona Healthcare System in Prescott earned five stars. Still, Dr. Elnahal acknowledged ongoing staffing challenges. “For example, mental health and psychiatry, in particular, are a big shortage across American healthcare,” Elnahal told On Your Side. “But we’re trying to address that in every way that we can because the more people that we have serving veterans, the better off their care is. Thankfully, we’re in a much better place with staffing than we were a year ago. We’re on pace to hire more than 52,000 people into the VA healthcare system.”

Elnahal anticipates improvements in the length of time it takes veterans to schedule appointments, too. “I think we need to do a lot better on access to care across the country,” he said. “We’ve made progress over the last year. More than half of VA medical centers have improved their wait times for primary care, but we won’t be satisfied until all of our medical centers are meeting our wait time standards — 20 days for primary care and new patient visits and 28 days for specialty care. We also want mental health to be seen within that 20-day mark as well.”

McBride says pushing for progress is necessary. “I’m not saying they don’t care. I just think they’re overwhelmed,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have outside doctors that can help me. There are a number of veterans in the great state of Arizona who aren’t in my position, and I feel very sorry for them because they deserve the best care inside or out that they can get.”

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