The percentage of veterans in the Tennessee and Kentucky region waiting more than 30 days to see a doctor is nearly double that of the rest of the country. About one in 20 appointments in the Tennessee Valley healthcare system failed to meet the VA’s completion goal, according to new data from the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
Wait times are particularly high at the satellite clinic in Hopkinsville, Ky., where two out of the four physicians left at almost the same time last year, says Tennessee Valley outpatient clinic chief Robert Lim. Now they're back at full staff, but they've taken on overflow patients from the nearby Clarksville clinic, Lim says.
Meanwhile, the clinic in Maury County also lost two providers recently — leaving just one clinician.
At a small clinic in Tullahoma, one provider left on short notice this year, and the average wait time tripled the next month. A replacement was hired recently, Lim says, but that didn't work out.
“All of a sudden, we get a note from him yesterday saying he has decided not to come, so we’re back to square one," he says.
The system is trying to make the physician position more attractive by offering competitive salaries and hiring more support staff, says assistant director Ronnie Smith.
It’s also adding space to several clinics, as well as the main campuses in Nashville and Murfreesboro, which Smith says should create a better work environment for doctors.
“It’ll give us some additional square footage to work in,” he says.
The percentage of appointments with month-long wait times has decreased in recent months — from 6.79 percent in January to 5.44 percent in March, which is the most recent month with data available. But overall, Tennessee Valley wait times have been increasing: Last September, only 3.33 percent of appointments took longer than 30 days to complete.
Veterans waiting more than 30 days can choose to go to a private doctor on the VA’s expense, but Lim says fewer people than they hoped have taken advantage of that.