Fayetteville Observer- Veterans in Fayetteville, region say they can attest to VA health care delays

Fayetteville Observer- Veterans in Fayetteville, region say they can attest to VA health care delays

Long waits at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center are a concern but not news to many of the veterans who get care there.

A day after it was revealed that the center on Ramsey Street has the longest waits to get a doctor’s appointment in the nation, local veterans and others Tuesday joined a chorus calling for better care in the shadow of the military’s largest installation, Fort Bragg.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson is scheduled to be at the Fayetteville hospital on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s office said Tuesday.

Robert Anderson, a retired lieutenant colonel and Vietnam War veteran who serves on North Carolina’s Military Affairs Commission, said the problems at the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs hospital are not new and cannot be fixed overnight.

“How do you go from so far behind to being all caught up?” he said. “It’s an arithmetic problem. There’s too many veterans and insufficient medical providers.”

Other veterans reported being told to visit local emergency rooms for minor medical needs and to fill prescriptions. They said that even with an appointment, patients could wait hours to be seen.

Anderson said the local VA has long been bogged down by bureaucracy. He first sought treatment at the VA more than two decades ago.

“It’s simple: There’s too many of us out here and too few of them in there,” Anderson said.

A national audit released Monday revealed that Fayetteville VA Medical Center patients wait an average of 29 days for a primary care appointment. New patients wait an average of 83 days.

Nationwide, more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for their first VA appointments, according to the report. Another 64,000 have enrolled in VA health care over the past decade but have not been seen for an appointment.

Jeff Melvin, a spokesman for the Fayetteville VA, said in a statement that the medical center has experienced tremendous growth in the number of patients over the past few years, creating major space constraints.

“The presence of many veterans separating from the major military installations within our area of responsibility … has impacted our availability for appointments,” Melvin said. “Simply put, as the data indicates we are straining to add more capacity to take care of more veterans.”

Melvin said the Fayetteville VA is working to increase its capacity. The center is seeking additional leased space for a rapid expansion and is recruiting staff to fill needed positions, he said. And the VA is building.

“We are expanding to the Lee County area with a new community-based clinic, and plans for a replacement (clinic) in Jacksonville (that) will nearly triple the size of the existing clinic are proceeding.”

In Fayetteville, a health care center is under construction, and the VA is seeking a site for a rehabilitation center to be run jointly with Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican whose district includes much of Fayetteville, said the audit released Monday shows that VA patient scandals in the news for weeks have “hit us here at home.” She called for a full investigation.

“North Carolina veterans have been putting their faith in a system that doesn’t work and one that has deep-seated obstructions which have prevented them from getting the care they earned,” Ellmers said.

Hagan, who wrote Gibson and asked him to visit the Fayetteville hospital, said veterans need to hear from the VA leadership about what will be done to ensure they have access to benefits they earned.

The House unanimously approved legislation Tuesday to make it easier for patients enduring lengthy delays for initial visits to get VA-paid treatment from local doctors instead. The Senate was poised to vote on a similar bill within 48 hours, said Democratic leader Harry Reid.

The House bill and a similar version in the Senate would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to hire more doctors and nurses, but that may be easier said than done given a nationwide shortage of primary care physicians.

National response

Nationally, VA leaders and veterans groups were talking Tuesday about addressing the scheduling problems.

Gibson said he was to meet with private health care industry leaders to discuss best practices and policies for scheduling patients.

Leaders with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a national nonprofit group that advocates for the country’s newest veterans, said in a news release that they met with Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, to discuss the scandal and the Fayetteville hospital.

“Sen. Burr has a comprehensive understanding of the challenges facing the VA and of the increasing population of new veterans it serves, and he is very engaged in finding creative solutions to build a 21st century VA,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the organization’s founder.

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