By Tom Kisken

The Ventura County Star story here. 

Patients wait far less for appointments at an Oxnard Veterans Affairs clinic that a year ago struggled with staffing shortages and was considered among the worst in the nation for wait times, according to new VA records.

In February, veterans who were returning patients at the clinic waited an average of six days past the date they requested for primary-care appointments, according to a new online wait time tracker that VA officials cite as a sign of change for the oft-criticized national health system.

New patients waited an average of 16 days for primary-care appointments, well under the Department of Veterans Affairs’ standard of waits of no more than 30 days.

“For now, we’re good. I worry about staying that way,” said Kim Evans, executive director of the Ventura County Military Collaborative advocacy organization, crediting the VA for making changes. “The complaints I used to hear, I’m not hearing.”

A year ago, the clinic was identified in a congressional hearing by U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, as being one of the worst in the country for making appointments within 30 days. As of mid-April 2016, about 67 percent of pending appointments were scheduled within the 30-day standard.

Many of the problems were blamed on issues retaining and recruiting doctors and other staff members by then-new clinic contractor, STG International. At one point, the clinic operated with only one doctor.

Now there is a full staff of six primary-care providers, said Brownley, noting that her office continues to watch the clinic’s staffing levels.

Records show patient wait times have improved. As of April 1, 91 percent of pending appointments were scheduled within the 30-day standard.

“I certainly think we’re going in the right direction,” said Brownley, who serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

According to the new wait tracking tool, returning patients waited an average of five days past their requested appointment for mental health care in February, nine days for women’s health issues and 11 days for problems dealing with the heart.

Waits for new patients ranged from 12 days for mental health to eight days for women’s health.

The VA’s wait time tracker is part of an access and quality website that new Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin said is designed to increase accountability. The site also compares quality of care at VA hospitals to private-sector hospitals. Ventura County hospitals are not included in that database.

Another new tool weighs patient’s satisfaction in access to care. There, the Oxnard clinic still lagged, according to data collected last year when the clinic was still boosting staffing levels. Only 62 percent of the veterans said they were always or usually able to get access to routine primary care when they needed it.

Only 53 percent said they were able to get access to urgent primary care when needed.

Veterans outside the Oxnard clinic on Wednesday offered mostly praise. A year ago, there were problems making appointments, said Johnny Walton, of Fillmore, who served in the Navy in the 1960s.

“Lately, I’ve had no problems,” he said. “I’ve been getting right in.”

Wulfgar Miller, of Ventura, an Army veteran, said in a phone interview that past problems with appointments in Oxnard mean he rarely tries to see a doctor there.

“I don’t go there very often because I can’t make appointments,” he said.

Anthony Creed, acting associate director of community based care for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, said the system worked with the Oxnard clinic’s contractor to improve staffing and resources. He said in a statement that there’s a possibility an additional physical therapist will be hired.

Advocates say they still hear occasional complaints from veterans, but less than they once did. Brownley said the data on the website helps not only veterans but gives more information to people trying to make sure the VA meets standards.

“Clearly, wait times has been a major issue no only here locally but across the country, we’re constantly monitoring the data,” she said.