The number of veterans seeking health care but ending up on waiting lists of one month or more is 50% higher now than it was a year ago when a scandal over false records and long wait times wracked the Department of Veterans Affairs, the New York Times reports. The VA also faces a budget shortfall of nearly $3 billion and is considering furloughs, hiring freezes, and other significant moves to reduce the gap. In the last year, the VA has increased capacity by more than 7 million patient visits per year—double what officials originally thought they needed to fix shortcomings—but department officials did not anticipate just how much physician workloads and demand from veterans would continue to soar. At some major veterans hospitals, demand was up by one-fifth.
Citing interviews with department officials and internal department budget documents it had obtained, the Times found that doctors and nurses have handled 2.7 million more appointments than in any previous year, while authorizing 900,000 additional patients to see outside physicians. Meanwhile, there is an intense internal debate at the VA over a proposal to address a shortage of funds for a new, more effective but more costly hepatitis C treatment by possibly rationing new treatments among veterans. Agency officials expect to petition Congress this week to allow them to shift money into programs running short of cash. "Something has to give," says an agency official. "We can't leave this as the status quo. We are not meeting the needs of veterans."