VA struggling to provide timely care, despite new law

"My operating room cases are up by 9%," VA Portland Health Care System director said

A group of current and former military personnel take part in a Naturalization ceremony during a Veteran's Day observance at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
A group of current and former military personnel take part in a Naturalization ceremony during a Veteran's Day observance at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Department of Veterans Affairs has spent billions of dollars on improvements since massive backlogs were exposed at a Phoenix hospital last summer.

But today, veterans in Portland and across the U.S. are actually waiting longer for care than they were before the backlogs were brought to light.

Bob Fulmer covers his heart during a prayer at the Korean War Memorial on Veterans Day, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Bob Fulmer covers his heart during a prayer at the Korean War Memorial on Veterans Day, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“The bottom line is, why is it taking so long?” Vietnam veteran Victor Lansaw asked. “I personally have been waiting 11 months just to get my treatment taken care of.”

Lansaw spent a year in Vietnam with the U.S. Coast Guard. Today he says he suffers from PTSD and severe back pains.

“I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t sit,” he said. “It was very painful.”

Lansaw says he got the run-around when he reached out for help from the VA.

And he’s not alone.

In fact, every healthcare appointment with the VA requires prior approval which can take weeks to get. Then, veterans have to schedule their appointments which can take another few weeks.

The U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

“It’s kind of like I’m speaking but nothing’s coming out,” Lansaw said. “Nobody really listened.”

VA Portland Health Care System Director Joanne Krumberger says the reason wait times are up is because there’s an increase in the number of veterans looking for care.

“I’m up 37,000 visits, over 4.5% increase,” Krumberger explained. “My operating room cases are up by 9%, I have a 4.6% total growth.”

The Portland VA Health systems completed 905,321 appointments. Although 2015, isn’t over yet, 945,684 patients have already been seen.

Documents obtained by KOIN 6 News show, as of September, almost 7% of veterans in Portland had to wait over 30 days for care. That’s higher than the national average, which is around 3%.

Although a majority of Portland veterans are seen within 30 days, Krumberger says the VA still has a lot of work to do.

“We still have areas where we have long wait lists, and we know exactly where they are,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Ore.. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Ore.. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

In August, President Barack Obama signed the Veterans Access Choice and Accountability Act, giving veterans the ability to see doctors outside the VA system for their care.

But even with more doctors available, the growing pains associated with the new law put a big strain on the VA. The organization only had 90 days to implement the act.

Krumberger says they weren’t prepared for the amount of paperwork and confusion the new law created.

“If you were to develop a new program like Choice in the private sector, you would spend at least 14-16 months planning that before you rolled it out,” Krumberger said. “There was no computer system. We had to count on what I call manual labor, counting every veteran individually.”

The VA has dealt with backlog issues as a result of low staffing in the past, and today it’s still struggling to retain its workforce.

In a statement provided to KOIN 6 News the day after this story first appeared, Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler said:

“Veterans in our region are still being forced to wait too long to see a doctor. In the last year, the Portland VA, which includes the Vancouver clinic, hired 470 staff, lost 459 staff and 9.6% of veterans in Vancouver are still waiting over 30 days for an appointment. We cannot close the wait time gap if the VA is losing health care providers near the same rate they are being hired. I authored a legislative directive to help with long wait times at the Vancouver and Portland VA by requiring the VA to report to Congress on why so many providers are leaving, and to formulate a plan to fix the problem.  This concerning data showing above-average wait times for Southwest Washington veterans shows that we need this provision immediately.”

 

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