SALT LAKE CITY — Utah veterans often wait more than two months for their first appointment in the state Veterans Affairs health care system, an official from the system acknowledged Thursday.
"That's the truth, because we do have accessibility issues and we've never hidden those," said Shella Stovall, the associate director of patient care services for the Utah center.
The national review of VA systems reported the lag time earlier this month, ranking the Salt Lake City VA ninth worst in the country.
The report "is really pretty scathing. It's really pretty disturbing," Stovall said. But the system is working to speed the backlog, she told a military affairs panel on Thursday at the Capitol. It is hiring more medical workers and drafting plans to standardize the way it makes appointments, she said, adding it has already extended its clinic hours.
VA workers grapple with complicated, outdated computer systems that can affect record-keeping, Stovall said, but its "humble and high-integrity" officials have not ordered workers to cover up the waits in the same way an Arizona VA officials are accused of doing.
But Sen. Karen Mayne, D-Millcreek, questioned practices at the Utah facility. Mayne spoke in recent years, she said, with a group of 30 VA workers who told her that pressures to work fast prevented them from doing their jobs correctly. They said they avoided bringing the issue to managers for fear they would lose their jobs, Mayne said.
"We want to make sure things are fixed and people aren't fearful," she said, "because they were fearful four years ago."
Stovall countered that she believes the culture at the facility has changed. "We don't want to pressure our employees to have to alter records," she said.
In years past, some workers have come forward saying they changed records, but the system swiftly corrected those, Stovall said.
The national review came following April reports of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at an Arizona VA center.
In Utah, 447 veterans have been waiting more than 90 days for medical appointments, the audit found. Also, 792 who signed up for VA health care over the past 10 years have never been seen by a doctor, the report found.
The Utah system covers 125,000 miles from southeast Idaho to central Nevada, whose smaller, rural clinics can mean longer wait times. The facility offers to bring veterans to Salt Lake City for quicker care.
To prepare the report, investigators for the VA traveled to sites around the country in May and June, including visits to the Salt Lake hospital and outpatient clinics in South Ogden, Orem, West Valley City, Roosevelt and St. George.
At the meeting, legislative policy analyst Richard North praised the state system, which he uses for medical care. "Once you get in the door," he said, "it's as good as it gets."
Nationally, "I think this is a wakeup call," Stovall said. "I think you're going to see a lot of change over the next few years."