Veterans wait too long for care

SAM STOCKARD, Post Columnist


U.S. Army veteran Matthew Lange waited four months to get a primary care physician when he entered the Veterans Administration health-care system.

Now he’s been waiting since early April to undergo a CT Scan at York VA Medical Center after doctors spotted a lump on his kidney through magnetic resonance imaging. His appointment is scheduled June 17.

“I can see waiting a month or a month and a half, but two months?” said Lange, 31, who served several tours in Iraq as well as Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti and is disabled. “(The tumor) could double. It could eat your kidneys.”

Veterans Administration hospitals across the nation are under fire for the length of time it’s taking them to see patients and meet their health-care needs. As part of the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, York VA Medical Center reportedly has some of the longest wait times in the nation.

Investigations have turned up situations in other hospitals where veterans were placed on secret lists that placed them on hold so long that some died before they could be seen by a doctor.

The VA’s top administrator, retired Gen. Erik Shinseki, resigned last week amid a firestorm of criticism. President Barack Obama ordered the department to allow veterans to receive health care in the private sector.

Tennessee VA officials said Tuesday the administration is starting a system-wide plan to speed up veterans’ care by reviewing clinic capacity to maximize the ability to provide medical appointments and increase the use of non-VA care facilities.

“We understand veterans are currently waiting longer than they desire, and the team of leadership, clinicians and administrators are working at all levels to address access at all VA TVHS sites of care,” said Health System Director Juan A. Morales in a prepared statement.

“We take pride in the specialized services we provide to veterans of Middle Tennessee, Southern Kentucky and Northern Georgia and want to ensure the highest quality possible. Each day the entire staff works diligently, providing care that was so bravely earned through service to our country. We will not rest until this is resolved.”

All veterans on the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System electronic waiting list are to be contacted in an effort to provide more timely access to care, according to the statement. Veterans will be given the choice to seek a community health-care provider or wait for TVHS care.

If possible, earlier clinic appointments will be scheduled, according to the statement. Clinic hours could be extended in the afternoon and evenings as well as on weekends to meet patient demand, according to the VA.

Ophthalmology, optometry, orthopedics, dermatology and the pain clinic are among some of the high-demand specialties within the Tennessee Valley system.

Lange said he’s been considering going outside the VA for health-care treatment.

“My biggest concern is with the people who are not being seen right away,” he said. “How are they going to get their help?”

The VA said Tuesday it has experienced a “systemic issue” in reporting accurate wait times.

But Lange and others believe the entire system is broken. For instance, when he entered the VA system, he was placed under a doctor who had quit but was still getting paid.

Matthew O’Dell, 30, a veteran of the Marine Corps and U.S. Army, said the system as a whole needs to be repaired.

“They don’t operate as efficiently as they could,” said O’Dell, owner of Reveille Joe Coffee Co. on Murfreesboro’s Public Square.

Veterans are ingrained with the philosophy that they won’t quit until the job is done, O’Dell pointed out, and they could help the VA become more effective.

“I think the way to fix this is to hire people whose sole purpose in life is to help veterans,” said O’Dell, who suffers from lower back injuries, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress.

Rather than yelling at Congress or the president about the VA’s problems, O’Dell believes until the system is fixed on the national level, local communities need to take the initiative to solve problems. That could mean simply getting together with fellow veterans for a relaxing talk, he said.

“The biggest thing we need to understand as veterans is we are our biggest weapon,” O’Dell said. “We can help each other if we just remember our core values. … Never leave anyone behind.”