The Denver VA Medical Center is delaying dozens of surgeries because of a shortage of anesthesiologists. A VA spokeswoman said the hospital postponed about 65 to 90 non-emergency surgeries because of the shortage.
The Denver VA facility is part of the Eastern Colorado Health Care System, which reportedly has some of the worst wait times in the nation. A July report found that nearly 13.5% of doctor appointments at the health system had a longer than 30-day wait, which was the worst in the country.
The average wait time for a surgery involving an established Denver VA patient is 8.3 days, which is better than the VA’s average (9.5 days), but worse than the overall national average (5.8 days).
The VA system has been struggling with patient wait times. The VA would like all patients to have access to an appointment within 14 days, but some veterans wait longer to see doctors.
In one of the most publicized cases, the Phoenix area VA had wait times nearly four times the national average in 2014. Since then, the Phoenix VA has improved the numbers and sought additional ways to improve doctor access. The Phoenix VA Health Care System earlier this year announced a partnership with TriWest Healthcare Alliance and CVS’ MinuteClinic to expand healthcare services for veterans in the Phoenix area. Veterans in that area will now be able to refer veterans to MinuteClinics through the Veterans Choice Program.
For Eastern Colorado, the VA system faced a 16% doctor vacancy rate over the summer and increased primary care doctor pay in the hope of bringing more physicians onboard. Eastern Colorado has also been working with locum tenens to fill the gaps.
As another way to help, the Department of Veterans Affairs is proposing a rule that would allow its healthcare providers to treat patients through telehealth. Proponents say the move will especially help rural areas since the rule will allow doctors in urban areas to see patients in other parts of the country.
Also, in August, President Donald Trump signed the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act, which allocated $3.9 billion for the VA to hire additional staff, upgrade VA facilities and add 28 more VA clinics. More than half of the money ($2.1 billion) will go to the Veterans Choice Program, which uses government funds to pay for care for veterans living in areas without ready access to VA hospitals and clinics.
The VA isn’t the only one facing physicians shortage and long wait times. Some estimates predict a physician shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 doctors across the U.S. by 2025. A recent study in California found that state alone could be short 4,700 primary care clinicians by 2025 and about 4,100 by 2030.
Experts fear shortages, but the number of actively licensed physicians has actually improved. According to the Federation of State Medical Boards, the percentage of actively licensed physicians increased by 12% between 2010 and 2016. The U.S. physician-to-population ratio improved in that time from 277 physicians per 100,000 people to 295 per 100,000. Despite those improved numbers, healthcare experts still worry that the physicians won’t be able to keep up with the aging population, or what's being called "the silver tsunami."