VA Delay: Can the Veterans Affairs healthcare system be fixed?

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Navy veteran David Deason fought back tears as he told WIAT 42 News about his medical treatment at the Birmingham VA Hospital.

“We just deserve, as veterans, to have better care,” Deason said.

Nationwide, it’s a broken system. An internal Veterans Affairs audit shows more than 58,000 veterans waited more than 90 days for a first appointment, and Alabama was not exempt.

The VA facilities in Montgomery and Tuskegee were found to have some of the longest wait times in the country, with veterans waiting 51.5 days to see a doctor.

“It took me over 45 days to get an appointment. By that time, another infection had set in,” Deason said.

“That’s unacceptable and I do not think that is the norm,” said Dr. William Harper, the Chief of Staff at the Birmingham VA Hospital.

Harper does admit it’s a challenge to meet the growing needs of veterans. In 1990, 20,000 veterans walked through the hallways of the Birmingham VA Hospital.

Now, that number has risen to 62,000.

“They’ve been asked to do a really difficult task – to take care of an increased number of patients with a limited amount of space and a limited amount of staffing,” said Harper.

In an attempt to address that problem, Birmingham will open a new clinical annex next year. The new annex will mean more space, more doctors and faster patient care, which is welcome news to Deason, who is already fed up with a system he says doesn’t work.

When he attempted to make an appointment recently at the VA clinic, he waited a total of 31 minutes. And the appointment never happened.

Harper says the phone delay that Deason and other veterans experienced was caused by problems connected to a phone upgrade. At one point, Harper says 1,700 phone lines were down.

Those problems have since been fixed, but fixing other issues, in a system with growing demands, will take time.

“We’ve been doing what we’re supposed to do,” said Harper. “Have we been perfect? No. Are we striving to be? Yes.”

In the meantime, veterans like Ricky Boswell remain optimistic. “I have nothing bad to say about the VA,’” Boswell said.

Still, others are desperately waiting for chance.

“Let’s face it. They are failing the veterans,” Deason said.

It’s important to note, though, that when it comes to patient wait times, Birmingham’s VA Medical Center ranks among the best in the state. However, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson says if the doesn’t get extra funding to hire more doctors, nurses and other health care providers, wait times for veterans will only get worse.

Copyright 2014 WIAT 42 News

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