POCATELLO, Idaho - Veterans Affairs hospitals across the nation are under fire this week after audits show a number of them have been falsifying their records showing wait time for patients were shorter than they actually were.
Now, 81 hospitals throughout the country are being revisited for a second audit, which could have some hospital officials facing criminal charges.
According to the audit reports, more than 57,000 veterans have had to wait at least 90 days before going in for their first VA appointment. On top of that, 64,000 additional veterans were never even accounted for when it came to making an appointment and seeing it through.
While many hospitals are stuck facing that second audit, the local VA hospitals and clinics in southeast Idaho and Salt Lake City came out clean.
Bannock County Veterans Services Coordinator Melissa Hartman said it's no surprise that our local VA medical facilities did so well during this most recent audit since VA representatives do everything they can to make sure records are transparent and they keep careful track of every single veteran scheduling an appointment.
But, she said there is still room for improvement when it comes to the issue of access, which is something they have been struggling with for quite some time.
"I think after the audit, it was clearly a good assessment of what is happening in our area," Hartman said.
She said while other VA medical facilities face the overall problem of not having enough doctors, our region just does not have enough space.
In turn, that creates a longer waiting period before veterans can see a doctor.
The Pocatello VA Clinic is just part of the main VA Hospital based out of Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake City VA Hospital Chief Communications Officer Jill Atwood said the wait times are unacceptable as part of the access issue, but the hospital still doesn't have the secret lists and lack of transparency the other hospitals do whose ethics are being called into question.
"Although we have wait times that are unacceptable, we have complete integrity and transparency when it comes to our scheduling system so we know exactly who those veterans are," Atwood said. "We were doing everything right and everything we needed to do, so we are in the clear with that (second audit)."
Hartman said there are 6,800 veterans in Bannock County, and the local VA clinic only treats about 22 percent of those individuals. She said this is because some of them opt out of using the VA Health Care system, some choose to use private insurance, and others just don't understand the system.
Others, find traveling to the main Salt Lake City office is too far when the Pocatello office is packed and the wait time is too long. So, they instead seek care from community-based hospitals such as the Portneuf Medical Center, who does not turn-down care to any of the patients who walk through the door.
PMC's Director of Communications Brenda Stanley said the hospital sees about 35,000 patients who visit the Emergency Room every year.
"A lot of those people come because they do not have another option," Stanley said. "Whether it is insurance-related or they just do not have any other place to go."
Atwood said the VA Hospital in Salt Lake City will cover the transportation costs for those in the Pocatello region who choose to travel down to Utah for care if the Pocatello office is too packed.
But for many, that just isn't an option when they have the time to wait.
The Associated Press reports the initial audit was performed after reports surfaced that there were multiple veteran deaths while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital.