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<p>Veterans shared their concerns and questions with top staff of the Durham VA Medical Center in a town hall meeting Tuesday night.
By Hyun Namkoong
Reporting By Rose Hoban
In the wake of an embarrassing national scandal involving long wait times that exposed a byzantine system of care at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Durham VA Medical Center has been holding meetings for veterans to raise issues, concerns and questions.
The third in a series of quarterly meetings was held Tuesday.
Four issues dominated the meeting: lack of communication among providers, an outdated phone system, parking and a lack of diversity in VA staff.
Mary Johnson, a veteran, said she loves her VA and calls herself the VA’s biggest cheerleader, but believes that improvements can be made to the system.
North Carolina is home to the world’s largest military base and to an estimated 800,000 veterans. The state has six VA medical hospitals and clinics and the system is adding another half-dozen clinics by the end of the year.
The most recent data from the VA show that roughly 9 percent of veterans waited more than 30 days to get care at the Durham VA. As of February, more than 700 veterans had a waiting time between 61 and 90 days.
North Carolina ranks eighth in the nation for medical care spending on veterans. But after Tuesday night’s meeting, it’s clear there are still problems getting care and support to veterans in a timely and appropriate manner.
Veterans shared their frustrations about finding a spot to park where they won’t get towed or ticketed.
An Army veteran who only identified himself as Tony said he has gotten care at the VA since 1998. “Parking is getting worse and worse,” he said. “I almost missed my appointment last week.”
DeAnne Seekins, the Durham VA’s medical center director, said she had the same concerns about parking.
“We’re trying to emergency lease … 300 parking spaces down the road. We are expediting that to the best of our ability,” she said.
Veterans also raised concerns with the VA’s outdated phone system, something they say prevents them from reaching their doctors and making appointments.
David Curry, a Marine Corps veteran of the war in Iraq, said a month passed before he could schedule a follow-up appointment after a screening because he couldn’t leave a voicemail with anyone.
He said the number he had been given didn’t work, and then it was changed. Curry finally contacted a VA patient advocate to check on the status of his follow-up care.
“I know how to navigate the system because I work here, but what about other vets?” he asked.
Communication and claims
Veterans said a lack of communication and coordination between providers within the VA system negatively affected both the quality and continuity of care.
Curry said communication problems between VA and private sector providers also led to delays in making appointments.
The 2014 N.C. Department of Veterans Affairs Report raised the issue of having veterans’ programs housed in a “labyrinth” of federal, state and local organizations that don’t communicate with each other. The report states that the maze “has led to costly duplication at best, and massive gaps that potentially contributed to the negative spirals of joblessness, homelessness and even veteran suicide.”
Walter Powell said he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012, a year that was flooded with such cases.
“It took a year and a half to start my treatment,” he said. “That’s how backed up they were.”
Powell said the VA didn’t pay his last two medical bills, and now he’s stuck with a bad credit report.
“Who wants something on their credit report?” he asked. “I shouldn’t have to run around like a dog to get this done.”
In response to the long wait times veterans experienced, Congress signed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act into law on Aug. 7 of last year to allow them to see private health care providers.
Veterans across the country have been issued a Choice Card that lets them go out of the VA system if they can’t get an appointment within 30 days or if the nearest facility is more than 40 miles away.
Seekins said only 6 percent of veterans have used the Choice Card.
“It hasn’t been a rush to the private sector,” she said. “There are waits out there [in the civilian system]. Our wait times are often considerably better than what we’re able to coordinate in the private sector.”
As much as Therese Hall appreciated the opportunity to air her concerns, she expressed disappointment that there wasn’t more racial diversity to the panel of hospital officials at the town hall meeting.
“I do notice that the panel is full of Caucasian people, and I really think that there are things that maybe minorities can add to your panel,” she said.
Data from 2015 show that approximately one in five veterans are a racial minority.
Under a microscope
Seekins said she tells her staff that working for the VA is not just a career, it’s also a lifestyle.
“We are dedicated to the mission. Our accountability is at its all-time high,” she said.
Since 2009, the VA budget has ballooned by nearly 70 percent to more than $160 billion as a flood of veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are added to the system. Its budget for medical care alone is almost $60 billion.
“We are always going to be under the microscope,” Seekins said.
She said the Durham VA receives around 66,000 veterans a year.
“North Carolina is growing. The veteran population is huge,” Seekins said. “We want to partner with each one; we need them to be partners with us.”