Long Wait Times & Malfunctioning Phone Systems Addressed at Veterans Affairs Town Hall

Jan 28, 2016

At a recent Veterans Affairs town hall, the two biggest complaints veterans had were long wait times and the difficulty of having phone calls answered or returned.  While phone systems are being addressed, fixing the speed of medical appointments may take an act of Congress.

About a year ago, Congress instituted the Veterans Choice Program – and ever since then, it’s had some problems.  See, the program was set up to eliminate long wait times for veterans’ medical care and to provide more convenient, accessible service.  Here’s how it works: If a veteran cannot get an appointment at their VA center within one month, they can use Health Net Federal Services to book an appointment with an outside provider.  But let’s hear from one veteran who spoke up at the VA’s recent town hall meeting: 

I’ve also had to be waiting for an appointment for over three months.  And also to piggyback a little bit more off of that, if they do call you, and I don’t answer, say I’m at another appointment or I’m just doing life things, when I call the Choice program or I try and call back, I’ll be lucky if I can leave a message.  I was told when I called the Choice program they specifically shut off the answering message, and I could not leave a message.  It just rang and rang and rang.” 

Brian Corlett, Health Net’s Market Manager, says that upgrades are coming for their phone system: 

“We know there’s been some delays in appointing, some issues with payments to providers.  Those are being addressed.  We still have a lot of work to do.  There have been long hold times.  We understand that as well, and we are working as quickly as possible to train up new staff.  We are putting together a 500 person call center.  The first wave of 125 folks have started.  By the end of April, we should have that, all 500 people in that call center to answer your questions so your calls are answered a little bit more timely.” 

Health Net’s phone issues create a domino effect, jamming up the VA call centers as well.  That’s according to regional director Elizabeth Goolsby:

“The call center that we have in Fayetteville was intended to take 8,000 or 9,000 calls a month.  We are now getting more than 30,000 calls a month, and the reason is many of our patients are frustrated with Health Net, with the Choice system.  They can’t get through there, so they’re calling our call system, and we’re being overwhelmed, absolutely overwhelmed.  We have hired 14 people now for our call center just to try and answer the phone.  It’s a work in progress.  We’re trying to get better.” 

So, the phone issues are being addressed.  But the root of the problem, according to Corlett, is that Health Net is simply overwhelmed with requests: 

“We did not understand what that volume would be. I don’t think that the VA did either.  So, we are unfortunately playing catch-up to staff up so we can deal with the volume of calls and to appoint timely.” 

Some town hall participants noted that it would be quicker to just allow veterans to make their own appointments with doctors.  Corlett says Health Net is working to adjust the law to allow veterans to do just that: 

“That is one of the things that we are working on because it only makes sense.  You know, with our civilian health insurance that most people have, you have your card, you call and make an appointment with a doctor that’s in your network. You all should be able to do the same.  We’re working to address that, but again, that does mean changing the law and changing our contract, and you know, it does take an act, literally, an act of Congress to do that.”