River Region veterans react to audit results on AL VA centers

Published: Jun. 11, 2014 at 3:30 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 21, 2014 at 3:13 AM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Department of Veterans Affairs released its audit Monday, looking into long wait times at health facilities.

The report found more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or longer for medical appointments. An additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA Health care over the past decade have never been seen by a VA doctor.

Investigators found an overly complicated scheduling process, confusion among clerks and supervisors and that 13% of schedulers were ordered to falsify dates on waiting lists.

During the widening investigation into the VA, it has been found that some hospitals fell far behind a 14-day goal for patient appointments and compounded the problem by falsifying records to make it appear they were meeting the target.

The audit looked at hundreds of hospitals around the country, including Alabama, and the numbers show that the facilities in Montgomery and Tuskegee have some of the nation's longest waits for new patients.

According to the federal audit, VA centers in Central Alabama have an average wait time of 75 days for new patients- seventh-worst nationally- compared to the Birmingham VA where the average wait is 31 days for new patients. For existing patients needing primary care, the wait in Central Alabama is six days.  For new patients who need specialty care, the average wait time in Montgomery and Tuskegee is 65 days.

For existing patients needing specialty care, the average wait time is seven days, the second highest wait in the VA Southeast Network. For first time mental health patients, the wait in Central Alabama is 57 days which is nearly double the wait time in Birmingham. Existing patients needing a mental health appointment wait an average of 15 days, the highest in the VA Southeast Network.

As a result of the initial audit findings, there were 10 locations in the VA Southeast Network that were flagged for further review and investigation into suspected misconduct. The Montgomery and Tuskegee locations were included on that list.

The audit's findings were no surprise to James Milton, a veteran who suffers from diabetes. "This VA, all I can say is it's sorry and like most vets say, it sucks," he said. "Mind you, I've been here three years and I've seen a VA doctor twice."

There are other vets who have nothing but good things to say about their experiences at the local VAs. "I've had excellent benefits from the VA. Excellent service from the VA, the local VA. I haven't had any problems with the doctors, with the pharmacy, X-ray, all departments. I've had really good appointment scheduling, patient affairs," said Chuck Manikas, a Vietnam veteran.

Manikas says he believes the system is strained as more and more soldiers become veterans and as other vets continue to age. "There's a lot of people in the area that use the VA. There's a lot of people in the Montgomery area that use the VA regional office that file claims. There are more and more veterans coming back from overseas and then other veterans are getting older every year," Manikas added. "I can line up 20 veterans and you might have one or two of the 20 that will say something negative about this VA."

U.S. Representative Martha Roby issued a statement Monday on the audit's findings:

"Reports are emerging that employees in the Central Alabama VA falsified records to hide long wait times for veterans seeking care. I actually met with the Central Alabama VA Director, James Talton about these developments last week. He told me action had been taken to terminate those responsible for the wrongdoing. If true, that's a positive development. Right now my office is trying to follow up on exactly who got fired and when. Anybody found to have mistreated veterans, altered wait list documents, or been complicit with such behavior should be immediately terminated and possibly prosecuted."

UPDATE: Wednesday, Rep. Roby said she was 'mislead' and no one has been terminated.

Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers also issued a comment on the VA Audit:

"I am appalled to learn that certain employees at Alabama VA facilities have been a part of this. To know that any of our Veterans experienced artificially extended wait times is deeply disturbing. No matter how many employees are involved, all implicated in this scandal should be terminated."

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved the latest in a series of reforms in response to mismanagement and long backlogs at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Senate is poised to vote on a similar bill within 48 hours.

The Veterans Access to Health Care Act was passed in the House by a unanimous vote of 426-0. The bill is designed to ensure that veterans can receive health care at a non-VA hospital if they cannot get timely treatment at a VA medical center or if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA hospital. The cost of the care at a non-VA hospital would be provided at the department's expense and reimbursed at the greater of the rates established by the VA, Tricare, or Medicare.

On Monday night, the House approved a bill that would increase the accountability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to the VA Inspector General.  It earlier cleared legislation that would make it easier to demote or dismiss senior VA managers who fail to ensure that veterans are receiving the highest level of service from the agency.

Veterans and their family members have called, emailed and posted on WSFA's social media sites, wanting their voices heard about their treatment at the Central Alabama Medical Centers in Montgomery and Tuskegee

Some gave the facilities high marks and praise.

"I have good primary care coverage in Tuskegee. I couldn't ask for anything better. The only delay I've found is if you need a specialist," said Robert Boleware, a disabled Army vet.

Another viewer, Mike Renegar wrote:

"I am a combat Vietnam veteran. I receive care from the Montgomery and Tuskegee V A hospitals. I have been very pleased and impressed with the care that I have received and the caring attitude I have received from the staff members employed at these facilities...There may be some areas locally that need to be addressed however I would give high marks to the Director of our VA facilities, Dr. Stokes, and all staff members that look after me and my medical care."

Eric Menefee told WSFA that his 91-year-old grandfather, a WWII veteran, has been waiting more than two years to be scheduled for cataract surgery and he's gone blind while waiting for the Montgomery eye clinic staff to schedule the appointment.

"Based on his age and condition, he's expecting the VA to fully honor its obligation to its veterans," Menefee said. "The fraud has been going on for many years and many decades."

A Marine Corps veteran spoke to us under the condition of anonymity. He underwent spinal fusion surgery at the age of 22 after being injured during his first tour to Iraq. He has been going to the Montgomery VA Medical Center for his medical care.

"When I ask for more help and tell them I'm having more problems, they just want to give me x-rays and send me on my way just to give you the minimal care so they can say they didn't blow you off when it took you six months to get that appointment in the first place," he told WSFA. "They do as little as possible to say they've done something and I just think we deserve more than that. In my opinion, it's our right to get this medical service back to us, especially when we get hurt doing our jobs for the government."

A Vietnam vet also asked us to conceal his identity. He is hoping to see VA system and local facilities revamped.

"All they want to do is give you medicine and tell you to go on. They don't want to solve the problems. This has been happening since I've been going there in 1972," he said. "I'd like to see the facility change. I'd like to see the doctors care. I'd like to see the nurses care. I'd like to see that we as veterans who fight for the freedom of everybody else that somebody cares about us. And I feel like now that nobody cares about us."

Former Army senior aviator Carol Varner survived combat and the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

"I would like to see everyone in the VA system become accountable for their actions and realize how precious it is for them to have the freedom to even work at the VA. That freedom was granted by our military and they should give back by doing the very best they can for our veterans," she said.

We reached out to the VA Southeast Network to request an interview and access to the Montgomery and Tuskegee VA medical centers Tuesday and are waiting to hear back from public affairs officials.

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