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VA patient satisfaction and trust reach all-time high

Officials say the surge in patient trust at the Department of Veterans Affairs is due to an increase in health benefits meted out and lower wait times for appointments.

Patient trust in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) outpatient healthcare offerings has reached an all-time high of 91.8%, according to a new quarterly report from the agency.

This is in addition to key growth in overall veteran trust in the VA, which the department said has increased to 80.4% in Q1 2024.

"The Veteran Signals," or "VSignals," report is based on survey responses from more than 38,000 veterans who used multiple VA services between January 1 and March 31. Services included healthcare, disability and compensation benefits, memorial affairs, the GI Bill, home loans and more. Trust rates were calculated based on the proportion of veterans responding yes to whether they "trust VA to fulfill our country's commitment to veterans."

"There's nothing more important than earning the trust of the Veterans we serve," said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a public statement. "Veteran feedback is a critical part of VA's strategy to increase Veteran access to their earned benefits and services. Surveys like this tell us what we're getting right, and what we need to improve -- so we can better serve those who served our country."

The high patient trust in VA outpatient healthcare is particularly notable following a surge in care access. During the survey period, there were more than 9 million healthcare patients enrolled in the VA and more than 5.6 million individual veterans who accessed veteran healthcare.

That amounts to a total of more than 30.6 million clinical encounters facilitated by the VA, including 20.4 million in-person appointments, 5 million telehealth/telephone appointments, and 1.3 million community care referrals.

VA balances bigger patient load with short wait times

Notably, VA has increased new patient access to care, potentially an aftereffect of the increase in VA benefits. During the survey period, there were 25,000 more new patient appointments at the VA, amounting to an 11% increase over the same period in 2023. Overall, 81% of VA medical centers saw more new patients in the first part of this year than during Q1 2023.

Moreover, VA has been able to dodge the appointment wait time issues that have previously hamstrung the agency. There was an 11% decrease in average wait times for VA primary care and a 7% decrease in average mental healthcare wait times.

"We're reducing wait times for patients, even at a time when we're delivering more care to more Veterans than ever before," said VA Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal, M.D. in a press release. "VA is the only national health care institution in America that publishes its wait times, and we do so to ensure we are fully transparent with Veterans and earn their trust. A shorter wait time for care makes a difference in a Veteran's life, and we will continue to build on the progress we've made to reduce wait times even further."

Among new patients, 12% fewer waited more than 20 or 28 days for an appointment. Broken down by care type, the number of new patients waiting longer than 20 days for primary care decreased by 19%, and the number of new patients waiting longer than 20 days for mental healthcare decreased by 9%.

The agency credited what it termed "Access Sprints" for its improvements in appointment wait times. Access Sprints constituted a nationwide effort to offer night clinics, weekend clinics and more appointment slots during daily clinical schedules.

VA makes headway with PACT Act

Increased trust in the VA might be attributed to the implementation of the PACT Act, which President Biden signed in August 2022. The law expands VA healthcare benefits.

In Q1 2024, the VA completed 292,640 PACT Act claims, according to the report. The department also outlined key veteran outreach it completed to increase access to benefits under the PACT Act. That outreach has yielded more than 1.1 million pageviews for the VA's PACT Act informational website.

VA progresses after decade of scrutiny

These improvements come as the VA closes out a rocky decade. In 2014, then-Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned following a scandal in which the agency falsified veteran wait times.

VA healthcare continued to be saddled with wait time problems. Although metrics regarding access to care have generally improved since 2014, federal watchdogs have flagged other issues.

In August 2022, a JAMA Network Open study showed geographic disparities in VA appointment wait times. A separate JAMA Network Open study showed racial disparities in VA appointment wait times, which were exacerbated during the pandemic. Meanwhile, a 2023 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report detailed pitfalls in specialty care access at the VA.

These most recent data points paint a rosier picture of wait times and care access at the VA. And according to McDonough, veteran wait times and overall access to care will continue to be a priority at the agency.

"Whenever a Veteran chooses VA for their care, we want them to know that we are going to take care of them -- and we're going to get them in for an appointment as quickly as possible," McDonough stated publicly. "That's the standard to which we hold ourselves, and we'll never settle for anything less."

Sara Heath has been covering news related to patient engagement and health equity since 2015.

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