By: Tim Hudak
I have been a VA customer since I left the Marines in 2009 and have had nothing but a fantastic customer experience. So, it pains me to see other Veterans having a rough time.
I’ve always been curious as to why the outspoken majority on social media have complaints instead of praise for VA services. I realize that negative experiences motivate Veterans to post their complaints more so than positive experiences, but I still have to wonder, am I an outlier?
A few weeks ago, I saw my primary care physician at the VA. I asked him why he thinks that Veterans have such polarized experiences, even at the same facilities. He told me a story about a Veteran who had a treatable, but life-threatening issue. The Veteran was referred to a specialty clinic, but that clinic never called him to set up an appointment – that clinic messed up.
Four months came and went. Instead of calling VA, his primary care physician, nurses or even that clinic to get an appointment, he wrote his congressman. That congressional letter took two more months to route its way back to VA. Six months from the start, that Veteran was finally seen by the specialty clinic.
That’s when I realized why I have a better experience than others. The VA is not the military; you can’t wait around until you are told to do something. You must advocate for yourself.
You and I at some point will fall through the cracks. No matter how great an organization is (and I think the VA is pretty great), it will happen. That is reality, but it doesn’t have to negatively affect your experience.
But it’s so much more than being proactive, it’s using all of your available resources.
This is what I do to have a great experience with VA.
Schedule your appointments first thing in the morning or right after lunch. You will be seen on time.
I remember when I was a kid, the doctor would come in for five minutes and leave. Once, I was so afraid of a needle the doctor spent 15 minutes with me, and he was visibly annoyed. Annoyed because he spent more than five minutes with a single patient. (The calamity!)
VA docs are not bound by quotas to see as many patients as possible despite the need. They focus on quality visits. (My last annual checkup was an hour) They tend to run over their scheduled times, often sacrificing their lunch breaks.
Scheduling an appointment first thing in the morning or right away after lunch is one of my tricks to always be seen on time. It also makes it easy for you to be early and on time.
Have a referral to a specialty clinic? Call that clinic yourself to schedule an appointment.
If you wait around for the clinic to call you, it may be a few weeks. Sometimes VA will automatically schedule you. (I hate that too.) So don’t let it happen in the first place. Ask your physician or nurse for the phone number or location of that clinic and call or go there, tell them you have a referral and set a time that works for you.
Ask for an appointment tomorrow
VA reports on a metric that claims majority of Veterans receive their appointments within 14 days of the desired date. I’ve always been curious to that number because no one ever asks me when I want to come in, rather tell me when I can come in. So, I decided to start asking for an appointment tomorrow, and it almost always works! I routinely will have an appointment within two weeks.
Use My HealtheVet secure messenger to talk to your physician
Have a question? Ask. Need a new appointment? Ask. Need to check your appointment schedule? Need to refill a medication? You can literally solve your own problems in a few clicks. This is a game changer if you aren’t already using it. Every facility has a My HealtheVet coordinator and most staff can help you if you run in to any technical problems.
Choose a different VA
You have the right to go to any VA facility you want to. Yes, it may be more inconvenient, but you have that right. I have a friend who plans a trip home every few months and schedules his appointments all in one day at his hometown VA because he likes it so much.
Walk in to the emergency room if you need anything
If you can’t wait, use the ER. At the least, they will put in a referral and you can walk to the hospital to be seen. If you have a referral, you can usually talk to the clinic front desk and offer to wait around until a spot opens. I’m not advocating to use this needlessly, but if your condition is getting worse or you feel you need to be seen sooner than your appointment, use the ER. Please, please, please don’t wait around for VA to contact you if you have an urgent need.
Use the kiosks
Don’t wait around to check in for your appointment. Use the kiosk and avoid the lines. Every time I’m at VA there is a line at the front desk and a few kiosks open. The kiosk will even tell you if you are in the right area or not.
Prepare and double check
If you are like me, you see your doctor once or twice a year. When I go, I bring a laundry list of issues I want addressed. As you go down your list with your doc, cross them out or write down the clinic he/she is referring you to. Verify at the end of the visit that the physician entered your referrals, mistakes can happen and you want to make sure you catch them before you leave.
Have a problem? Speak up!
Every facility has quarterly town hall meetings that you can attend to speak with the leadership. They hold these meetings because they want to hear your feedback. You can also speak with a patient advocate about anything.
About the Author: Tim Hudak joined the VA digital engagement team in December 2013. Tim, a Chicago-land native enlisted in the Marine Corps straight out of high school. As an intelligence analyst he deployed to Al Anbar province, Iraq with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363 in 2006 and 2008. After the Marine Corps, Tim used the GI Bill to earn a degree in Intelligence Studies from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., and co-founded the university’s first student Veteran organization. Tim is active in many Veteran organizations and enjoys wrestling his German shepherd, Capone.