‚??Medical care delayed is medical care denied. If I am experiencing this inexcusable delay, how many others in the Louisville area and beyond are also?‚?Ě veteran Patricia Mahaun said. / Michael Clevenger, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Shortly after moving to Louisville, Patricia Mahaun stopped by the local veterans hospital in October, hoping to find a new doctor, get checked for a possible urinary tract infection and get a flu shot.
The Air Force veteran had been going to a Veterans Affairs clinic in Texas for years, so she expected no problem scheduling an appointment with the Louisville VA. Instead, she waited six frustrating months before she finally saw a doctor.
"Medical care delayed is medical care denied," said Mahaun, 64. "If I am experiencing this inexcusable delay, how many others in the Louisville area and beyond are also? It's high time that we start treating veterans like the heroes that the public claims we are."
Mahaun joins a growing chorus of veterans and officials outraged by delays in VA outpatient care being reported across the nation, prompting President Barack Obama to say last week that he will not tolerate them and to promise accountability.
The controversy first erupted over allegations that 40 patients at the Phoenix VA Health Care System in Arizona may have died waiting for care - spurring similar accusations in several states, an investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General and face-to-face audits at every facility. Auditors visited Louisville's Robley Rex VA Medical Center on May 12 but have not released findings.
Judy Williams, spokeswoman for the Louisville VA, said she could not provide average wait times at local clinics or say how many complaints the local agency has received concerning waits. But Stephen George, spokesman for Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said his office has recently heard from about 20 veterans complaining about waits that lasted three or four weeks.
Williams said that when a new patient requests care, "every attempt is made to give the patient an appointment within 30 days of their desired date." Officials consider each case based on medical needs, she said, providing immediate care to those with urgent needs.
Nationally, the VA has set a goal of 14 days for wait times. The agency cares for about 6.5 million veterans and other beneficiaries in its facilities, which include 150 medical centers and 820 community-based outpatient clinics. Louisville's VA serves more than 150,000 veterans.
"The department is very concerned about the allegations being made," Williams said. "We are here to provide the highest quality health care for our veterans. ... We want to improve services if there's a need to do that."
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki expressed similar sentiments at a hearing this month before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. He said he was "mad as hell" about reports of waits and allegations of falsified record-keeping to cover up those waits and wanted to regain veterans' trust.
He might not get the chance. Already, calls are coming for his removal.
Mahaun said she hopes focusing on the issue makes a difference. While she waited, she said, she suffered for weeks with left shoulder and arm pain that made it hard to sleep.
"The good news is I don't have anything that's urgent," she said. "I wonder about the guys coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan missing arms, legs, eyes, PTSD, head injuries. ... Are they having to wait six months or longer?"
Mahaun joined the Air Force when she was 21 and served for 26 years
After retiring as a colonel in 1997, Mahaun became eligible for VA care in Austin, Texas, receiving a 50 percent disability rating stemming from several surgeries. For about 15 years, she said, she got "excellent, timely care."
"In retrospect, I had no idea how good I had it there," she said.
She moved to Louisville in August. On Oct. 3, she stopped by the admissions office at Louisville's VA hospital, where she said a woman told her she needed to provide a letter proving her disability rating and eligibility. If she was eligible, she was told, she would be assigned a primary-care physician within a month.
She said she wound up going to the VA emergency room that day to be checked for the urinary tract infection and receive a flu shot, then went home to wait to be assigned a doctor.
"Thanksgiving comes along. Christmas comes along. I was still waiting," said Mahaun, who kept track of her waits in her daily journal. "I thought they would keep their promise."
On Feb. 4, Mahaun said, she went back to the hospital and wandered the halls until an employee was able to listen to her complaint and check her eligibility on his computer.
The next day, she said, she was told she would be assigned to a doctor at a VA clinic in Shively, and was told to stop by the Kentucky Air National Guard on Feb. 12. There, she gave intake information and had a blood-pressure check and medication review but never saw a doctor.
After suffering with shoulder pain for a couple of more months, she stopped by the clinic against the VA worker's recommendation March 31 and landed an appointment for April 11. The doctor eventually diagnosed arthritis.
Williams urged veterans facing similar difficulties to see patient advocates, who work at the hospital and at each of Robley Rex's eight Community Based Outpatient Clinics. Mahaun said she was unaware of them.
"Our goal is to provide the best quality, safe and effective health care our veterans have earned and deserve," Williams said.
Some veterans and veterans' advocates said the Louisville VA seems to be meeting that goal. Jim MacDonald, an Air Force veteran who is state quartermaster adjutant for the state VFW, said he hadn't "heard any negatives" about the local VA.
"I use the local VA," he said. "I don't have no complaints."
Army veteran Ronald Erhardt, 81, said he's been getting care through the Louisville VA since 1990 and has never waited more than a week or two for a doctor's appointment.
"I've been to five different VA centers," he said, "and Louisville is by far the best one."
Mahaun said she hopes no other veterans have to wait as long as she did to see a doctor.
"I'm entitled to VA care; I earned it," she said. "The bottom line is there are a lot of people who say veterans are heroes, and we need to do everything we can for them. But the VA is underfunded and there are inefficiencies.
"It's a bureaucracy. It needs to be fixed."
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