October 5, 2008 – Bill Kunsman isn’t crazy about waiting a month to see the doctor.
The 70-year-old veteran has arthritis and was recently told that one of two doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs’s Orem Outpatient Clinic was deployed, leaving them shorthanded.
“There’s a lot of older veterans who will bend over backward and not say anything. But I’ve reached a point I can’t be quiet anymore,” Kunsman said.
The Orem clinic, which handles more than 2,000 veterans, is indeed understaffed, said Jill Atwood, regional public affairs officer for the VA health care system.
“That person will be back in early December,” Atwood said. “Admittedly so, there will be a little bit of backlog.”
Atwood said the problem isn’t unique to Orem.
“It wouldn’t be an issue if all the clinics weren’t shorthanded because of deployments,” she said.
One national veterans advocate says the national problem is a “social catastrophe.”
“The reason is they simply don’t have enough doctors,” said Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense. “I want there to be very harsh criticism for the VA for failing to plan.”
The VA system has seen an influx of 350,000 people from the wars in the Middle East, Sullivan said. This comes at the same time more doctors are on the battlefield, where they are needed to patch up those who are shot or hit by roadside bombs. The work they are doing has resulted in the highest survivor rate of any battlefield in history, but at the expense of those who have come home and need medical help. Studies show that up to 30 percent of veterans wait up to 30 days to see a doctor, he said.
“And that’s a problem.”
Keith Davis of Springville works hard to get veterans into the VA system. But the 83-year-old World War II veteran says it isn’t a fast process.
“If you sign up now, it’d take you three months to get in,” he said. “It used to be you’d get right in.”
It’s not only the influx of new veterans that are slowing the system, said Davis, of Springville. Many veterans who have been on employer-based insurance are dropping it because of cost or retirement and seeking the VA out for treatment. All that has meant not just a temporary delay in getting treatment, but a long-term extension of time between meetings with a doctor, Davis said.
The short-term delays in Orem will likely last another two months, said the VA’s Atwood, as the deployed doc comes back in December. In the meantime, the VA is training another physician and sends help down from Salt Lake City when possible.
“They should really start to see an improvement in the next couple of weeks,” she said.
The long-term answer, says Sullivan, is better use of the money available, which has been increased in recent years.
“The problem is the administration, it’s not even Congress.”
Kunsman said he has no beef with the VA on the treatment side, which has been good. He just wants veterans to be able to get treatment in a reasonable amount of time. And bus-hopping his way to the Salt Lake facility isn’t much of an option.
“I’d rather sit here in pain than go through that,” he said.
Davis says the same.
“A lot of people condemn the VA and cuss ’em, but I think they’re really good.”