HARLINGEN, RGV – It may come as no surprise to Rio Grande Valley veterans but the VA facility in Harlingen has the nation’s worst backlog for new patients seeking specialist care.

On average, new patients seeking specialist care at the Harlingen facility had to wait 145 days to be seen by a VA doctor, according to a new national audit by the VA. Harlingen also ranked second worst for new patients seeking primary care, at 85 days.

In a statement, the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, which administers the Harlingen clinic, acknowledged it has problems. It said the audit shows that “we have some systemic issues in our scheduling practices, which have caused serious delays in meeting our mission.” TVCBHCS said it was taking a series of “immediate, sweeping actions” to “fix” its problems, and help it accomplish its mission.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said he was “horrified” by the findings of the national audit.

“I am horrified by reports that our veterans in the Valley are waiting months for appropriate healthcare. It’s simply unconscionable. There are at least 100,000 veterans living in the Rio Grande Valley, and we have a moral obligation to ensure they have access to appropriate care,” Lucio said.

“To me, this VA audit, as well as other recent reports of delays in VA care across the nation, supports our community’s enduring call for a full-fledged VA hospital in the Rio Grande Valley. Such a hospital would ensure that more veterans receive appropriate specialty doctor care in a timely manner.”

Lucio said the time for a new VA hospital could not be more opportune, with the recent authorization by the legislature of the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley and the transition of the Regional Academic Health Center into a four-year medical school.

“Our business and healthcare community has already rallied around this new medical school with promises to increase medical student residency slots in the Valley. Creation of a new veteran’s hospital would further expand residency opportunities and attract top-rate talent to treat our veteran community,” Lucio said.

Lucio added that pursuit of a veteran’s hospital is personal for him. “It was a dream of my father, who was himself a combat veteran. Before the Harlingen facility’s creation, I personally made several 500-mile round trips to San Antonio to seek treatment for my father. I recognize that since that time the Harlingen facility has been a blessing to many veterans, but I think recent reports make clear that much more must be done,” Lucio said.

The VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System serves more than 40,000 veterans in South Texas with 300,000 outpatient visits annually. It has clinics and other facilities in Corpus Christi, Harlingen, Laredo, and McAllen.

The Veterans Affairs Department released findings Monday of a national audit on quality of care and wait times. It follows allegations that 40 patients died awaiting care at a Phoenix hospital where employees kept a secret waiting list to cover up delays.

Eight locations in VISN 17, which covers Texas, require further review. Both the Harlingen and McAllen clinics are among the eight.

Valley veterans have been complaining for years about long wait times and having to travel to San Antonio for specialist treatment. The Guardian will bring reaction from Valley veterans to the news on the Harlingen facility in later editions.

TVCBHCS, which covers a 20-county area and which runs the Harlingen VA facility, has responded to the national audit. A statement was sent to media outlets on Monday evening by Hugo Martinez, its public affairs officer. Here is its statement in full:

At VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, it is our most important mission to provide timely access to quality health care our Veterans have earned and deserve.

As identified in the release of the findings by the VA National Access Audit team, we have been identified as one of 112 VA sites that will receive further review. At this point we do not know the reasons and we do not know who will be doing the review. We welcome the opportunity to have these types of reviews as we want to make sure that we are doing the right things for our Veterans. The data released also illustrate that we have some systemic issues in our scheduling practices, which have caused serious delays in meeting our mission. We are taking a series of immediate, sweeping actions to fix our problems, and help us accomplish our mission.

On May 21, 2014, in response to the VA Accelerated Care Initiative, we began calling all of our Veterans who have been waiting for more than 90 days for a specialty appointment, and asking them if they want to keep their original appointment, offer to move the appointment up, or to offer a referral to a Non-VA Specialist when earlier appointments are not available. The specialties with the greatest wait times are Ophthalmology, Optometry, and Audiology. As of Friday June 6, 2014, we had called 67 percent of the Veterans that have been waiting more than 90 days for a specialty appointment. We anticipate to have called all of our Veterans who fall in this category by Tuesday June 10, 2014. We are also contacting the Veterans with Primary Care appointments scheduled out over 90 days and moving appointments for those wanting earlier appointments.

In order for us to make sure that we have a true assessment of the wait times in our Health Care System, we need to make sure that our scheduling staff consistently follow VA scheduling guidelines. We have retrained all of our scheduling staff on proper scheduling procedures and customer service etiquette. We have also centralized the auditing of scheduling to ensure consistency across the health care system. In addition, we are increasing staffing where needed in Primary Care, Audiology, and Eye Clinic to ensure that we meet access standards moving forward.

Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System is committed to making the changes required to meet our mission of providing timely and quality health care to the Veterans we serve. We will ensure that there is integrity in the scheduling of appointments to allow for timely access to the health care that our Veterans have earned.