Veterans waiting weeks for care

Albuquerque average is 46 days

From Cortez, the nearest Veterans Integrated Service Network is 275 miles away in Albuquerque. There, new patients needing primary care wait an average of 46 days.

According to a Department of Veterans Affairs internal audit released on Monday, June 9, new patients seeking primary care at the Albuquerque VA hospital wait more than six weeks on average.

It can take nearly two months for new patients seeking specialty care in Albuquerque, and new patients needing mental health treatment wait an average of 38 days before seeing a physician.

“It’s a failure of leadership,” said Montezuma County Veteran Service Officer Rick Torres of the wait times.

Torres was quick to point out the problems within the VA health system date back decades.

“This is not just an Obama thing,” he said. “This is not just a Bush thing, and not just a Clinton thing. They all have to take responsibility.”

According to the recent VA audit, three of the region’s VA hospitals, which serve Montezuma County veterans, required further review for suspected willful misconduct.

Torres said he didn’t blame former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for the systemic problems associated with VA health care, but he was glad to see him resign on May 30.

“In the military, if a commander is not cutting it: they go,” he said.

The VA’s internal audit also revealed more than 57,000 veterans across the country wait more than 90 days to get a first appointment. An additional 64,000 may have never received an appointment at all despite enrolling and requesting one.

On Monday, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said he was “outraged” by the findings, stating many veterans were “experiencing ridiculous wait times.”

“It is deeply troubling that ailing vets have been forced to wait so long to receive the care they were promised,” said Tipton.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., agreed, saying he would continue to lobby for changes within the VA to ensure veterans receive the care and services they’ve earned.

“The VA must do better, and soon,” said Bennet. “It needs to be more responsive, more transparent and more efficient.”

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said Monday he would co-sponsor a bipartisan proposal from U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to reform the VA, expand veterans’ access to health care and make it easier to fire employees for mismanagement.

“I was frustrated when partisan obstruction blocked a VA-reform bill earlier this year, but Congress has another chance now to take concrete steps that address the systemic failures that have been identified in the VA system,” Udall said.

Late Wednesday, Udall announced the Veterans Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014 was passed to reform the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

To help combat the problem, Torres encouraged all area veterans to join either the Veterans of Foreign War or American Legion. Both organizations serve as advocates for veterans issues when addressing politicians in Denver and Washington, D.C.

“At least join one of these organizations,” said Torres. “The numbers matter when folks are trying to get voted back in office. Make sure your voice is heard.”

Torres explained Montezuma County veterans fall under the auspices of the Albuquerque VA hospital. He said area veterans were also able to see VA physicians in Durango, which is currently experiencing a two week waiting period for new patients, or in Farmington, where new patients could expect a six week wait.

A potential remedy for veterans needing immediate treatment for the flu, for example, Torres said veterans could always opt to seek emergency room treatment. He then warned service members that the VA would not cover an ER visit unless it was life or death situation.

Another option for veterans was to switch their VA hospital service to Grand Junction, 227 miles away from Cortez. Torres warned local veterans who switch hospitals outside of the Albuquerque jurisdiction could risk not receiving travel expenses.

The VA hospital in Grand Junction reported new patients must wait more than seven weeks on average for primary care, but the average wait time for specialty care was only 38 days.

In a press release, VA officials said they have already taken corrective action to address issues resulting from the audit, including the May 21st launch of the Accelerating Access to Care Initiative.

“It is our duty and our privilege to provide veterans the care they have earned through their service and sacrifice,” said Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson. “As the President has said, as Secretary Shinseki said, and as I stated plainly last week, we must work together to fix the unacceptable, systemic problems in accessing VA health care.”

Approximately 2,400 veterans currently reside in Montezuma County. Nearly $60,000 in total health care benefits is awarded monthly to local veterans.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com