BILOXI -- Average wait times for patients to be seen at the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System remain higher than the national average but have still fallen significantly over the past three months.
Officials said the medical center is making progress in getting patients seen more quickly even as the staff struggles to keep up with increased demand.
In Biloxi, patients waited an average of 6.06 days for a primary care appointment in September. The average wait time in September for specialty care was 6.76 days and 4.46 days for mental health care.
That's still slightly higher than the national averages of four days for primary care, five days for specialty care and three days for mental health care.
But it is better than the number presented for the Gulf Coast system in August: 15 days for primary care, 13.89 days for specialty care and 7.46 days for mental health care.
VA medical centers across the country have worked for the past 18 months to improve access to care and regain the public's trust after a scandal in the spring of 2014 shook many veterans' faith in the system. On Friday -- three months after the last update -- Gulf Coast VA officials spoke about how they are doing.
Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System Director Anthony Dawson said the medical center is performing well "back stage." It is following national policies. It is keeping up with best practices. In 17 external reviews over the past year, very few recommendations were made for the medical center, and the reviewers even took examples of best practices from the Gulf Coast system.
But Dawson also acknowledged that veterans don't see any of that - they see how quickly they can get care and the quality of care they get.
"Our front stage needs a little more work," he said.
Part of the challenge, Dawson said, is keeping up with demand.
Despite the scandal surrounding the VA, the number of patients seen and appointments made has risen dramatically.
In the past 12 months, veterans completed 2.7 million more appointments inside the VA than in the previous year.
On the Gulf Coast, clinics had 54,281 more patient encounters in Fiscal Year 2015 than in Fiscal Year 2014 - a 5.1 percent increase over 12 months.
At the same time, 96.1 percent of patients were seen within 30 days for mental health, 85.65 percent for primary care and 88.29 percent for specialty care. In June only 94 percent of appointments were completed within 30 days.
The VA has tried to compensate by hiring more staff.
Since April 2014, the Gulf Coast VA has hired 35 physicians, four physician assistants, 102 nurses and 296 other medical staff members. That totals 101.5 full time positions.
Nationally, the VA has hired 12,179 new medical staffers since April 2014.
"As we get more veterans in the system the access is impacted and we need to adjust to that growth," Dawson said. "As the system grows it will be more and more challenging."
The new doctors have helped but some specialty areas remain difficult, officials said.
In particular, the VA is still finding it difficult to staff orthopedics, oncology and nephrology, owing mainly to the bigger pay differential in those areas between the private and public sectors, said Ken Simon, the chief of staff. Officials are seeking additional doctors in some of those areas to meet a growing need.
Even with the VA still trying to climb out from under last year's scandal, several veterans on the Gulf Coast said they were satisfied with their care.
Bill Parker said he had been told to stay away from the VA. But when the hospital was the first to reopen after Hurricane Katrina he gave it a try and found wonderful care, he said Friday. Harry Bragg, retired navy from Moss Point, agreed, as did Carolyn Gift, who retired from the army and recently moved to Biloxi from Houston, agreed.
"I'd heard horror stories," she said. "But it's not how the story has been told."
All three said the problem was a disconnect between the quality of care at the VA and veterans' knowledge of how to access those services. Many may not know how to transfer all their information to the Gulf Coast system. Others don't know how to use the medical center's online services.
The end result is a veteran that lacks the information on how to access care.
Simons said the system is trying to address that with outreach, meetings and question and answer sessions.
Dawson said he and other officials would continue to work to improve patient access.
"We're still not there yet," Dawson said. "When we're there, believe me, I'll let you know because it will be the best day of my career. But we're on the right path."