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Our Opinion: Bad marks, but with good reason

At first glance, it appears the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics compares poorly to Department of Veterans Affairs facilities nationwide in wait times for newly eligible vets seeking appointments. But a closer look reveals good reasons for the low ranking — and a clear path to fixing the problem.

A nationwide audit of VA facilities showed 57,000 military veterans waited 90 days or longer for their first VA medical appointments, and an additional 64,000 never got appointments at all. The audit was the first detailed look at the VA medical system since reports surfaced of patients dying in Arizona while waiting for appointments, and VA staffers in Arizona falsifying reports to make it appear the facility was meeting its goal of scheduling appointments within 14 days.

The new VA audit reported 13 percent of staff members nationally reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment records to make wait times appear shorter.

The good news for SORCC in White City is that there is no apparent evidence of falsified records here. Established patients got appointments within 30 days 97 percent of the time. And SORCC was not flagged for further review, as some other Northwest facilities were, including hospitals in Portland and Roseburg.

The bad news: SORCC ranked third from the bottom in wait times for new patients seeking appointments with specialists, and seventh worst for those needing mental health services.

That's unacceptable, especially since returning Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans often need mental health services. It's also troubling because SORCC is a designated rehabilitation facility for vets needing help with substance abuse and other issues.

But the real issue here seems to be a lack of qualified psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. SORCC has lost five prescribing psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners and psychotherapists in the past year, and have had no applicants for some advertised vacancies.

Even in the private sector, there are not enough mental health specialists to handle the demand. The same is true for medical specialties. Long waits for non-emergent appointments with specialists is common even for private-sector patients.

Congress appears to be ready to act, judging by the strong reaction coming from both sides of the aisle. That means spending more money — the audit concluded that a 14-day standard wait time for appointments is unattainable because of poor planning and growing demand.

A sincere effort needs to come from all levels of the VA system, as well. A Portland VA Medical Center spokesman told The Oregonian the poor marks his facility received were "a snapshot," and that the backlog there had been cut by two-thirds in just one month through aggressive scheduling and outreach.

Which raises the obvious question: Why didn't they get aggressive a long time ago?