In the News

Friday’s ribbon-cutting for a Department of Veterans Affairs health clinic in Sorrento Valley is expected to help shorten the appointment backlog for first-time patients, which has grown from an historical average of 19 days to 30 days for primary-care visits.

Those figures are included in a new analysis of wait times at VA clinics coast to coast. The report also shows that while established mental-health patients can see a VA health provider in less than four days, people seeking such services for the first time currently wait an average of almost 40 days.

The statistical update comes as new Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald tours facilities nationwide, with a visit to San Diego scheduled for Sept. 8.

“Access is certainly a big challenge here in San Diego, and we are stepping up to it,” said Jeffrey Gering, director of the local VA health system. “We’re enhancing the ability to get our veterans seen.”

In July, the network saw 614 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who sought VA treatment for the first time — the largest ever sign-up of new patients in a single month.

Steps taken locally to reduce wait times have included the offer for 3,624 veterans to book appointments with doctors outside the VA system. Slightly more than half of those patients have pursued the opportunity, said VA spokeswoman Cindy Butler.

Another step toward helping patients more quickly is the Sorrento Valley clinic, a nearly $1.7 million facility that was in the works for six years.

Dozens of local VA workers joined Gering and Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, on Friday morning at the clinic, which officials said is staffed and equipped to handle about 17,000 outpatient appointments a year.

The nearly 10,000-square-foot facility, at 10455 Sorrento Valley Road, houses four primary-care teams, 15 exam rooms and other meeting and treatment rooms. It services include primary care, laboratory drawing, individual and group counseling for behavioral and mental health, women’s health care and a variety of classes.

All of that was welcome news for 58-year-old August James of San Diego, who was at the ribbon-cutting and managed to get an appointment even though the clinic won’t officially open until Monday.

“It’s too good to be true,” said James, who had nothing but praise for the treatment he has received from the local VA network for cancer, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“All the reports about problems around the country that have come out just don’t ring true for me — it’s just not the case here,” he added.

Peters noted that the San Diego region has about 220,000 veterans, the third-highest such concentration among U.S. metropolitan areas. He also said the outrageously long wait times and fraudulent record keeping at some VA facilities around the country haven’t been seen here.

“San Diego is really the model in how to take care of our veterans,” Peters said, adding that he is working with other members of Congress and the VA to improve accountability.

Right before Congress went on a five-week summer recess, it approved a $16.3 billion supplemental budget for the VA to ramp up staffing, add or expand facilities and clear patient backlogs.

The local VA health system is proposing to tap that national fund to add about 200 people to its current workforce of roughly 3,500 in San Diego and Imperial counties, said spokeswoman Butler. It also seeks money for 30 more physicians, with about half of them providing mental-health services.

New or larger brick-and-mortar facilities such as the Sorrento Valley clinic are already in the works, including expansions of existing facilities in Chula Vista and Mission Valley to help treat a population that exceeded 76,000 patients last year.

In keeping with new VA secretary McDonald’s promise for the agency to do better, three town halls have been scheduled to give veterans and their families a chance to air their concerns directly to local VA leaders.

The first of those sessions is set for 4 p.m. Sept. 15 at the Oceanside VA clinic, 1300 Rancho Del Oro Drive. The next session is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sept. 18 at the VA Medical Center at 3350 La Jolla Village Drive, and a third is set for 1 p.m. Sept. 29 at the VA facility in El Centro, 1600 South Imperial Ave.

McDonald, a former head of Procter & Gamble, has cited old technology, attempts to “game the system” and leadership failures as the key challenges he faces in taking on his new role.

In addition to the local VA patients given appointments in the private sector to avoid long wait times, more than 835,000 other veterans around the nation have been given referrals for outside treatment.

Overall, the VA provides care to nearly 9 million veterans and disability compensation to nearly 4 million