David Winter is a Gulf War veteran who depends on the Puget Sound VA to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder, neck pain and other ailments. In a town-hall meeting Wednesday evening called by the Department of Veterans Affairs, he spoke in stark detail about his difficulties trying to see his health providers and to get medications in a hospital system struggling under an expanding patient load.
Though he was supposed to have a 20-minute PTSD counseling session once every six weeks, he’d been to only three this year.
“The last time I went, I was told: ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you,’ ” Winter recalled. He says they never did call.
The Wednesday meeting in South King County is one of a series of town halls the VA is hosting around the nation to reach out to veterans in the aftermath of scandals that included manipulations of waiting times for veterans seeking medical care.
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The town hall drew more than 100 veterans to a hotel conference room, where — one by one — they went up to a microphone to speak to eight Puget Sound VA officials who sat at a front table flanked by flags.
A few veterans praised the VA health care they have received.
“I really feel the care I got is fantastic and saved my life,” said Carl Spitzer, a veteran who served in the Navy in the early ’70s, and now suffers from myriad health problems.
But most veterans talked about their difficulties obtaining medical care, getting accurate diagnoses, reaching VA providers on the phone or in person, and trying to get disability ratings that offer financial compensation. One veteran called out a doctor who he felt had tried to dodge him, and others complained about rude treatment by VA staff.
The VA officials made only brief opening remarks, and spent most of the night listening and occasionally responding to their concerns
Joel Mitchell, an associate chief of staff, told Winter, the Gulf War veteran, that what he had experienced was “absolutely unacceptable” and indicated the communication system was broken. He said he was grateful for his criticisms, and would follow up on them.
The town halls were called for by VA Secretary Robert McDonald, who took over after former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May after revelations about the cover-up of wait times. The focus of the scandal was in Phoenix, where some veterans died waiting for health care, but audits found manipulations of wait times in other areas of the country.
The VA health-care systems in the Puget Sound area and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest have been some of the fastest growing in the country, and, until recently, had some of the longest wait times. That’s put big demands on the Puget Sound VA to meet the demand for services at its major campuses in Seattle on Beacon Hill and at American Lake, Pierce County.
Some 300 positions are open among the 3,400 on the Puget Sound VA staff, according to Michael Murphy, Puget Sound VA’s director. To reduce backlogs, Puget Sound VA health officials say they have been aggressively hiring, they’ve increased the hours and days when appointments are available, and they’ve stepped up referrals to outside providers, according to a briefing paper distributed to reporters.
For new patients seeking primary care, they say, those measures have helped reduce average wait times from more than 59 days in mid-June to fewer than 40 by Sept. 1. Waits also have declined for established patients seeking primary care.
But for new patients requiring specialty care, wait times that averaged 49 days in May have not significantly changed.
The testimony Wednesday indicated that plenty of progress is still needed.
Scott Pondelick, a post-9/11 veteran, said the VA officials need to get out of their offices, out on the floor and find out what’s going on.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com