The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans to launch online medical appointment scheduling nationwide in January, according to a report in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
According to the Nov. 9 report, “The agency’s more than 6 million patients will be able to schedule primary-care appointments through an app on their phones, tablets or computers. VA officials hope to add mental-health appointments to the list in the future, in addition to optometry and audiology.”
VA’s healthcare scheduling system has been in the public eye for a few years now, ever since a 2014 report issued by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) highlighted the negligence from hospital officials and staff members at the Veterans Health Affairs medical center in Phoenix for not placing veterans on the electronic waiting list and undermining scheduling procedures. In total, the OIG report revealed the electronic waiting list system was missing at least 1,700 veterans who were not scheduled for an appointment.
As reported by Healthcare Informatics at the time, “By not placing veterans on the electronic waiting list and undermining scheduling procedures, officials ensured they could understate the time new patients waited for an appointment, which ties into financial incentives and rewards, media reports alleged at the time. Instead, the Veterans Health Administration officials created a secret waiting list. Various mainstream media outlets reported that this created a lack of patient safety that led to a number of patients died waiting for care.” The OIG report backed up some of those claims, but didn’t go as far as saying the patients died because they were waiting to get an appointments.
That scandal led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki amidst Congressional pressure. And in comments following the resignation, President Obama said that an internal review of the VA healthcare system revealed that the misconduct that occurred in Phoenix was happening in many facilities across the country.
Recently, VA CIO LaVerne Council has frequently discussed plans for a new scheduling system. The Union-Tribune report said that the cost to develop the function was $3.2 million. It uses a combination of technology infrastructure from Agilex Technologies, now Accenture Federal Services, and internal development by the VA. According to the report, “The new app software promises to remove the VA scheduler from the equation. Patients will be able to see what appointment slots are available for their physicians and then choose one with the tap of their finger or a click of their computer mouse, VA officials said.”
Earlier this year, a $624 million contract with Epic and Lockheed Martin to implement its physician scheduling product was put on hold, as the agency was said to be looking for a cheaper choice. That contract bid was won in 2015, but according to reports from this past April, VA wanted to test internal options.
It was also around this time that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) came out with a report which found more problems with enrolled veterans not being able get access to primary care. According to that GAO report, 60 of the 180 newly enrolled veterans in the agency’s review had not been seen by providers at the time of the agency’s review; nearly half were unable to access primary care because VA medical center staff did not schedule appointments for these veterans in accordance with VHA policy. The 120 newly enrolled veterans in GAO's review who were seen by providers waited from 22 days to 71 days from their requests that VA contact them to schedule appointments to when they were seen, according to GAO's analysis. These time frames were impacted by limited appointment availability and weaknesses in medical center scheduling practices, which contributed to unnecessary delays.