U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Delano Scott

VA staff shortage, long wait times plague Guam vets, report finds

April 13, 2018 - 12:00 pm

It’s no secret that VA medical facilities have often faced challenges to provide timely care, with the most egregious cases resulted in the deaths of veterans while they wait for appointments. But for vets who live in sparsely populated pacific islands, the remoteness can add some additional struggles.

When it comes to referring veterans to specialists at military or private hospitals there are extensive delays, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

One of the lengthier delays came when one veteran sought treatment at the Guam Community Based Outpatient Clinic. He waited 107 days to be treated, the report finds, while the average wait for specialty treatment was 47 days.

The VA seeks to provide primary medical care within 30 days of the veteran’s desired appointment date. That goal was met for 27 of the 30 medical records examines, but the exception was for three Guam vets who waited on average more than 60 days.

Part of the problem stems from a lack of qualified staff at the Guam clinic.

"Overall, there were at least 17 physician vacancies out of approximately 100 positions, as of October 2017, as well as several more vacancies for other types of health care providers, some of which have been unfilled for some time," the report stated.

"Guam clinic staff told us that at one point between October 2016 and March 2017, the clinic had 1.8 primary care physician full-time equivalents, even though it was authorized for four."

The report also found just one practicing dermatologist at Naval Hospital Guam, and only one gastroenterologist in the community.

That’s because physicians that come to the island face much higher costs of living, incomplete community resources and geographic inaccessibility.

To make matters worse, the report states that the Guam clinic operates off a computer server in Honolulu, 20 hours behind Guam, and as such “physicians are frustrated working in a system that may require multiple days to complete clinical notes.”

“If a Guam physician sees a patient on Monday at 3 p.m., it is 7 p.m. on Sunday in Honolulu. As a result, physicians must wait until the next day to retroactively complete clinical notes."

The time difference may seem insignificant, but because of the geographic quagmire, VA staff on Guam have only 16 business hours each week that overlap with regular working hours in Hawaii.

Del. Madeleine Bordallo, the delegate from Guam to Congress said “some progress has been made to improve health care services for veterans who live on Guam and the other Pacific territories, but this report underscores that more needs to be done.”

“Our veterans deserve better,” she added.