Vermont report details problem, but no fixes for patient wait times

Published: 2/27/2022 9:44:22 PM
Modified: 2/27/2022 9:43:55 PM

Kristi Kilpatrick is running out of time.

The 36-year-old has benign cysts on her ovaries, a condition the Burlington resident discovered last spring when she landed at the University of Vermont Medical Center emergency department with debilitating stomach pain.

The cysts have to come out if she wants the pain to stop, doctors said. And if she plans on having children, Kilpatrick learned, she would have to get the surgery sooner rather than later.

It’s been almost 10 months since that first emergency visit, and Kilpatrick isn’t even scheduled to get the surgery.

“I just want to get this over with,” she said. “And now it just feels like this interminable waiting, and I feel like now it’s starting to affect my reproductive choices.”

As she waits for this essential medical care, Kilpatrick is not alone.

Many Vermonters are waiting weeks — or even months — for specialist appointments, surgeries and other necessary services, according to a state Agency of Human Services report released earlier this month.

The report — the culmination of a five-month investigation that involved thousands of data points, including patient testimonies, “secret shopper” surveys and a report from a consultant — showed that a lack of employees and pressures from the pandemic amplified the longstanding problem of access to care in Vermont.

Key lawmakers said this week that although the report may have yielded new data, it likely won’t inspire new legislation anytime soon.

“Wait times is kind of a cloudy (concept),” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden. “It’s hard to put your finger on the one thing that’s causing the wait times.”

No one denies that some Vermonters wait too long to see specialists, said Lyons, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare. But what causes the delay is not always obvious or easy to address in legislation.

Lyons said lawmakers know that some Vermonters cannot see a specialist or get a necessary surgery on time, but policies to increase access to surgeries have very little in common with, for example, policies to address Vermont’s inpatient psychiatric bed shortage.

The original intent of the report, as then-Human Services Secretary Mike Smith put it last fall, was all about solutions. Responding to a Seven Days story on patients waiting weeks, and even months, to see specialists at the University of Vermont Medical Center, Smith said the state’s investigation would help inform health policy and even be the basis of specific proposals to lawmakers.

But the finished product makes murky, often confusing observations. It mentions there are not enough specialists to meet patient needs but glosses over the financial forces that dictate provider availability.

The report suggests that patients get referred to specialists too often but increasing the physician supply alone may not improve wait times.

Rep. Bill Lippert, chair of the House Committee on Health Care, agrees it could take years to fix these gaps.

“We’re in a very, very challenging time in health care, and there are very few immediate solutions to offer,” said Lippert, who chairs the House Committee on Health Care. “And that’s part of why there’s continued yearning for a longer-term systemic reform of the health care system.”

Lippert said he did not have time to read the report in detail, and there won’t be in-depth committee discussions about these issues until after next week’s Town Meeting break.

Kilpatrick, the Burlington resident, cannot wait for the wheels of government. It’s harder to get pregnant after age 35, and fertility only drops from there.

In December, Kilpatrick began looking at her options beyond Vermont.

She is scheduled to see a specialist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in May. It could take months for a surgery slot to open up.

The rest is out of her hands. The way Kilpatrick sees it, her recent hurdles are the result of years of crisis in health care.

“It’s not really surprising that we’re here,” she said. “But where do we go from here and how do we fix it?

“That’s the big question mark.”

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