WASHINGTON, May 27, 2016 — Long wait times, transportation problems and troubles with the Veterans Choice Program were among the issues Las Vegas-area veterans raised at the American Legion System Worth Saving town hall meeting on May 23.
American Legion Department of Nevada Adjutant Lionel Motta said he fields numerous phone calls from veterans and their families complaining about travel to the 2012-built VA medical center northeast of the city, difficulty getting timely appointments and similar frustrations with the Choice program, which began in 2014 to allow veterans in rural areas and those who must wait 30 days or longer for appointments to use non-VA providers.
“It’s my job to be patient and listen. I get these types of calls all the time, but I can’t seem to find a solution,” said Motta.
Motta opened discussion with the testimony of a recent phone call he received from the spouse of a Navy veteran. The concerned spouse cried on the phone as he told Motta of the struggle to get his wife quality VA care. The spouse detailed his wife’s mental health issues and how her behavior was negatively impacting their children. The family had been bounced around within VA and was promised a referral for an outside specialist, but never received one, Motta explained, adding that the wait time for veterans seeking VA care is still a huge concern in the Las Vegas area.
Attendees also expressed concern with transportation. “Once they get to you, (VA care is) good,” Motta said “But it’s a matter of getting them there. We need a simpler system.”
The Legion’s Department of Nevada 2nd Vice Commander Yvette Weigold shared a similar story about wait times, but expressed that her true concern is with VA’s Choice Program. Weigold said that it “took forever” to set up her first appointment with a non-VA provider in the program. She was instructed to wait for a follow up phone call from a Choice representative. Weigold said she waited five months and then spent three days in a row answering pre-screening questions from the same representative. Each time, the representative informed her that there was no record of the previous call, she said. Once she made it through the repetitive and arduous pre-screening process, she said she was informed that there were no providers available for the treatment that she needed. Weigold had been diagnosed with breast cancer and needed an MRI with contrast. “I know I’m not the first person diagnosed with breast cancer at the VA,” she exclaimed at the meeting. “Just send me somewhere.”
While some veterans voiced concern with the care they have received at the VA, others expressed satisfaction.
“The VA saved my life,” said Legionnaire Douglas G., explaining that a follow-up colonoscopy appointment at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System revealed an “eraser-sized” lump, and he was diagnosed with Stage 1 colon cancer. He added that VA offers the best services possible for veterans suffering from service-connected issues, including care for war amputees and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There are things that the VA does better than the private practice,” Douglas said. “Those are systems worth saving.”
Past American Legion Department of Nevada Commander Jack Ford said he believes that the inconsistencies in VA care can be traced to Washington. “The biggest problem with the VA is the bureaucracy, and I blame our legislative system,” he said.
American Legion leadership, senior staff from the Veterans Affairs Southern Nevada Health Care System (VA Southern Nevada HCS), congressional staff, and local veterans exchanged dialog on concerns and needs for military veterans who are using local VA services during the meeting.
Monday’s town hall meeting was followed Tuesday by a System Worth Saving visit between American Legion representatives and senior leaderships of the VA Southern Nevada Health Care System to discuss solutions to issues raised by veterans in the Las Vegas area.
In Tuesday’s meeting, VA leaders detailed many of the challenges facing the system, including staffing shortages. They described higher salaries and benefits packages from private sector medical companies as among the reasons for low employee retention. The southern Nevada officials said most physicians who choose to work at VA facilities are facing up to a 30 percent lower pay than their private-sector counterparts. Additionally, the Nevada VA lost 20 primary care providers in the past year and is one of few systems in the nation not supported by a large medical school affiliation.
As a solution, leadership at the VA Nevada HCS has asked the Legion to assist with proposing and supporting legislation for funding that will improve retention of quality health-care professionals.
American Legion Department of Nevada Commander Dave Evans responded that the Legion is on board with supporting that request and that he intends to send the message to state and federal officials.
The Legion concluded its SWS visit on Wednesday with trips to the Las Vegas Salvation Army homeless shelter and the Las Vegas Vet Center.