MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Central Alabama VA is working to expand its staff in the midst of a provider shortage.
It's a national VA issue and officials acknowledged that local hospitals and clinics are being impacted as efforts continue to recruit more doctors and improve access to care.
Gerald Adams is a disabled veteran who served in the Navy during Desert Storm with the Marine Corps as a corpsman
He is dealing with effects of PTSD and other health problems and has sought treatment at facilities in the Central Alabama Health Care System (CAVHCS), which is compromised of medical centers in Montgomery and Tuskegee and community-based outpatient clinics in Dothan, Montgomery, Monroe, and Wiregrass in Alabama as well as Columbus and Ft. Benning in Georgia.
CAVHCS was part of the scandal that rocked the Veterans Health Administration in 2014. The system came under fire for falsified records to hide true appointment wait times for veterans, which were some of the worst in the country. Ever since then, CAVHCS has worked to shine a light back on what's being done to make change and improvements in its services.
When Adams visited the Montgomery VA Clinic on Chantilly Parkway in Montgomery, he says it wasn't the experience he was expecting.
"I've gone in there and waited all day and then was turned away at the last minute for a test that could have been ordered hours before. I've sat there for the entire day just to be told to come back and wait in line tomorrow," he said.
After years of trying to get things sorted out with his disability through the Veterans Administration and the regional office in Montgomery, Adams says he devoted the entire month of February without income to get it all settled.
"It's torn me apart and it's happened multiple times. When I'm ill, I need help. I go and ask for the help and don't get it or I get put off to another point when I'm more ill," Adams said.
The Montgomery VA Clinic opened in December 2015 and provides Primary Care (Including Integrated Mental Health and Social Work Services), Women's Health, Geriatric Primary Care (Including Integrated Mental Health and Social Work Services), Dental Health, Optometry, blood draw and X-ray.
CAVHCS Interim Director Garth Miller says there is a shortage of providers across the entire VA, including Central Alabama.
"We're aggressively working to fill those positions," Miller said. "It's a national issue as far as a shortage of providers both in the public service as well as in the private sector."
At the clinic on Chantilly Parkway, there are nine primary care providers and two more are coming on board. Walk-in's are worked into any spots available between scheduled appointments on a standby basis, part of the nationwide "same day access" initiative.
"We see scheduled appointments first. if we have people who do walk-in and need to be seen that day, we do fit them in as we have slots available. Maybe we have no shows or a little gap between patients. We work them in and do our best to see them as soon as possible," Miller said.
"If a veteran shows up here at the Montgomery VA Clinic without an appointment and would like to be seen that same day, they may experience a wait while we honor the scheduled appointments first. We will do our best to work that veteran into the first available slot," he added.
Once the new providers go through the credentialing process and start working, the clinic will be able to see walk-ins faster, Miller stressed.
As part of recruitment efforts, CAVHCS is offering benefits and incentives for providers, including relocation expenses and education debt reduction.
Gerald Adams says he's waited to be seen at the Montgomery VA Clinic, only for it to close. He was then told to go to the emergency room at the hospital on Perry Hill Road for tests to be done.
"You can walk in and sign in and then you can wait. But as far as being sure that you're going to see someone, no, unless you're turned away and go to the emergency department and wait another 5-7 hours to be seen. It's not an emergency situation so you're gumming up the works. You're taking up time from veterans that actually need more emergency care," Adams.
He says dealing with his own personal VA and disability issues has cost him his career. An online account has been set up to assist him.
"How do you explain to an employer than I may or may not be able to be here next week because I may have to wait at the VA for hours and lose more work. I've turned over my clientele as a cosmetologist twice now because of this. This last time, I lost everyone," Adams said. "It's more than concerning. It's sleepless nights and confused and angry days."
On top of hiring more doctors and nurse practitioners in primary care and other specialties, CAVHCS is also looking at extending hours of operation at their facilities.
"We are working with our veteran service organizations here in Central Alabama and our AFGE labor partners to find out when veterans want to be seen and expanding those hours for them into the evening and on Saturday mornings," Miller said.
Once officials find out the demand for extended hours at CAVHCS facilities, they plan to launch the change in the next four to five months.
"We're working across the healthcare system to include the Wiregrass, Columbus, GA, Tuskegee, Montgomery, and Monroeville to extend hours and be available to veterans when it's most convenient for them to be seen," Miller added.
The VA has increased its total clinical work (direct patient care) by 10 percent over the last two years as measured by private sector standards. There's a push across the country to increase clinical staff, add space and locations in areas where demand is increasing and extending clinic hours into nights and weekends in an effort increase access to care even as demand for services increases.
In recent months, VA Secretary David Shulkin recognized CAVHCS as one of the top five fastest improving VA Health Care Systems in the country.
Miller says local partners help provide support and accountability.
"What we really want to do is get the word out to folks that Central Alabama is a great place to live and raise a family. And it's a great mission to serve America's heroes," he added.
Gerald Adams hopes his story helps shed light on the issues facing CAVHCS and other VA facilities in the United States in the midst of reform.
"I want to help move the Veterans Administration hospital to encourage a pickup in staff, a pickup in the amount of help that a veteran can receive at these facilities," he said.