MT Politics 2014: Veterans Are Waiting

A few months ago I had a new patient appointment with a civilian doctor. I called the doctor’s office on Wednesday and was seen the following Wednesday – the day I wanted to be seen. The new patient appointment process took seven days. I could have scheduled it sooner if needed.

As a veteran I am enrolled in the VA healthcare system, but I have never used it. Three or four years ago someone asked me why I did not go to the VA for my healthcare needs, and I said I did not want to wait weeks or months for an appointment.

So people being shocked that veterans have to wait a long time for appointments is a little amusing to me. They always have and under the present system they probably always will. Ask almost any veteran and they’ll tell you it takes a long time.

I am fortunate enough to have a choice, but here in Montana my fellow veterans have been waiting “an average of 48 days for their first appointment with a primary care doctor” at Fort Harrison Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Helena, Montana. Veterans in Hawaii, Texas, North Carolina, and Maryland wait for an average of 81 to 145 days according to this report from the Associated Press.

The VA conducted an audit on waiting times and scheduling practices at Veterans Health Administration facilities. According to KRTV in Great Falls, the facilities at Fort Harrison, Great Falls, and Billings were flagged for further review and investigation.

Of course, Montana’s congressional delegation is scurrying to help veterans, save face, and get votes. Messages are carefully crafted because of politics. Press releases are flying!

This scandal is especially difficult on U.S. Senator Jon Tester because he is on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Appropriations Committee that funds the VA. His armor has a crack – this is his baby – and people are watching him. Tester decided to hold a statewide listening tour. I get a chuckle when politicians announce listening tours – aren’t they supposed to be listening to us all the time?

Montana Republicans are probably wishing the VA scandal had happened in the summer of 2012 when Tester was being challenged by U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg.

U.S. Representative Steve Daines and U.S. Senator John Walsh are opponents heading for a showdown in November and both camps know they need the veterans vote to win. So they have kicked it into overdrive to make sure they are out-front on this issue.

Of the three members of the Montana Congressional delegation, Walsh is the only veteran. Walsh has demanded that the President form an independent commission to review the care America’s veterans receive from the VA. I think this is a good move if the commission is carefully chosen and it has some authority to kick butt and take names.

Walsh also announced that starting Wednesday, June 11, he will have staffers (who are veterans) at the Fort Harrison VA and the Billings Community Based Outpatient Clinic to assist veterans. This is also a good move.

As for Daines, I can’t get on his press release list, but I did find a press release on his website in which he said:

I deeply value the work that the Montana VA does on behalf of Montana’s veterans and as the VA continues their review, I am committed to continuing to work closely with the leaders of Montana’s VA system to ensure our veterans receive the care they deserve in a timely manner and to make all necessary reforms, were any inappropriate or substandard practices at Montana VA facilities to come to light.

Personally, I think many of the problems probably lie with the “leaders of Montana’s VA system” and leaders in other VA Healthcare systems nationwide.

Another press release I found on Daines’ website said he “helped introduce legislation to improve Montana veterans’ ability to receive health care services in a timely manner and in a convenient location.”

According to Daines, H.R. 4810, the Veterans Access to Care Act, would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to offer non-VA care at the department’s expense to any enrolled veteran who cannot get an appointment within VA wait time goals – currently 14 days – or who lives more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility.

I really like that. But unless it’s passed it won’t help.

This scandal won’t be resolved anytime soon – but that is nothing new to veterans – they are used to waiting.


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