State study confirms long wait times for medical appointments

The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 4:38 p.m.

Vermonters on average have been waiting for two months or longer to see a medical specialist, according to a new report from the Scott administration. 

The long-awaited report from the Agency of Human Services revealed that half of the medical specialties in Vermont were booked ahead for weeks or even months even before the most recent surge of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Dermatology and neurology patients on average waited the longest — more than three months, according to the data. And, at more than three months, the University of Vermont Medical Center’s average wait times were the highest in the state. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, another large regional player that cares for a significant number of Vermonters, had an average wait time of almost two months.

The report is the first publicly available analysis of what appears to be a profound gap in the state’s health care infrastructure. 

“This is a first look at a complex problem at an unprecedented time in our history,” Jenny Samuelson, interim secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said at a press conference Wednesday.

Wednesday’s report was the result of a multi-agency inquiry in which the Green Mountain Care Board and the Department of Financial Regulation are also participating.

In a separate press conference Wednesday afternoon, the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems and some of its member hospitals criticized the state for releasing the report just minutes before the press briefing. Executives also said the state’s focus on cutting health care costs — and razor-thin margins — made it difficult to adequately respond to emerging patient needs. 

“I don’t think you’re hearing from anyone in the hospital community that we’re disputing that there are challenges with access,” said Claudio Fort, chief executive of Rutland Regional Medical Center. “We’ve recognized that for years, and it’s part of the deal of being a rural health care administrator.” 

The state probe began in September after Seven Days reported that patients were waiting weeks, and even months, to see specialists at the University of Vermont Medical Center, the largest hospital in Vermont. The state’s investigation spanned months and included discussions with consumers, providers, hospitals and hundreds of “secret shopper” calls to clinics that simulated patient experiences in Vermont. 

Members of the hospital association said the secret shopper survey put an unnecessary burden on the health care system during the pandemic. 

At Wednesday’s press conference, officials presented graph after graph comparing wait times across medical specialties, regions and medical centers. The state’s inquiry stopped short of documenting the health repercussions to patients who could not see a specialist on time. 

The report does not say how many Vermonters saw their health deteriorate while waiting for an appointment. There also is no data on those Vermonters who gave up on getting appointments altogether, missing life-saving colonoscopies, mammography and biopsies. It is even harder to know how many Vermonters died while waiting for appointments.

Regulators had little to offer patients in the way of immediate solutions. Samuelson said everyone from hospitals to regulators would need to come together to address the issues that keep Vermonters from seeing specialists. 

Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, encouraged patients to look for appointments outside their regular networks, even as he acknowledged that this approach puts the onus on patients, some of whom have no time or knowledge to navigate roadblock after roadblock. 

Hospital leaders said specialists have always been hard to recruit and retain, especially in Vermont’s small rural hospitals. 

“No one of us can do this alone,” said Fort, the chief executive of Rutland Regional. “We need the support and assistance of the Green Mountain Care Board, the Agency of Human Services, our state and local legislators, the health insurance providers, and our federal representatives to make sure Vermonters have the access to care they need.”

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