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Georgia veterans battle with VA for quality healthcare

VA says bad experiences are outliers; cites recent survey
GA veterans battle with VA for quality healthcare.
GA veterans battle with VA for quality healthcare.(WTOC)
Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 6:22 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The V.A. has come under fire over the years. And, while some veterans say they’ve seen significant improvements, others say it’s still a struggle just to get the very basics.

A Statesboro vet says he waited months just to get a pair of eyeglasses.

“I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to get something I earned, and I deserve with my blood being shed on a foreign land,” said Benjamin Whittington. “And I’ve got nothing to show for it.”

Whittington, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran, says it took him more than three months just to get a pair of glasses through the V.A. Whittington broke his last pair during the COVID shutdown. He says, after he tried to get the job done locally at an eye doctor in Statesboro, they told him he had to drive all the way to Augusta to get fitted - a 170-mile drive round-trip.

Finally, after months of waiting, he got the glasses in the mail. Whittington blames the wait on COVID restrictions, miscommunications, and a total lack of accountability on the part of the V.A.

“It’s always something with them.” Whittington says this isn’t the first time he’s battled the V.A. Upon returning from Vietnam in 1971, he says they botched his paperwork. Instead of recording his active duty start date as Sept. 13, 1968, they put down 1971. That meant for years it showed he had only served for 11 days. The V.A. later amended his records. But Whittington says it took him more than a decade to get it fixed, and paperwork he showed WTOC indicates he wasn’t fully-covered until 1991.

“I was already suffering from PTSD,” Whittington said. “Now, I have the people who are supposed to be responsible for taking care of those telling me I’m not service connected.”

Chatham County Veterans Council Chair Joe Higgins says while the V.A. has come a long way, there’s still room for improvement.

“While they give you benefits and take care of you, they don’t necessarily explain how the process works,” said Higgins.

Ironically, Higgins’ says his first medical struggle with the V.A. was also over a pair of glasses. He says it took him two months to get his.

“It was a frustrating first experience, because you don’t know how the process works,” said Higgins. “But, as you go through, you start to figure it out, and it gets a little easier.”

Higgins says navigating the V.A. is hard enough for younger veterans, like him. He thinks the V.A. needs to do more to help older veterans, like Whittington.

“When you start to think about the Vietnam veterans, your Korea veterans, the World War II veterans we still have floating around… it’s got to be frustrating. Because the V.A., while they are improving their processes, they’re mostly improving it online. So, it’s definitely harder for those guys to navigate that.” Whittington says he doesn’t want to see other veterans struggle to get basic care, like he has.

“We have a struggle here that’s common for us who serve in the military,” said Whittington, “to come home and do what we have to do to survive.”

WTOC reached out to the Charlie Norwood V.A. Medical Center in Augusta. A spokesman told us they cannot comment on a specific case, such as Whittington’s. Here’s what he did tell us:

  1. A recent survey shows the Charlie Norwood V.A. Medical Center has a 79% satisfaction rating.
  2. The average wait time for optometry is 21 days.
  3. They tell WTOC that COVID has not had an impact on their quality of care, citing an expansion in virtual care.
  4. They say the center is not understaffed or underfunded.

Here’s a look at the full transcript conversation between WTOC and Will Martin, Chief of Public Affairs for the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.

WTOC:

“Q1: First, we’d like to know what happened with Whittington’s case - anything you are able to share/whether it is typical for the VA.”

Martin:

“A1:

  • As we discussed, due to privacy concerns, we can’t publicly comment on specific patient cases.
  • That said, overall patient satisfaction is high across Augusta VA Healthcare System – and compares favorably with our community (non-VA) healthcare counterparts. As you can view here, patient satisfaction scores are at 79 percent for the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta.”

WTOC:

“Q2: What are some issues the VA faces that may lead to longer wait times and worse communication right now?”

Martin:

“A2:

  • Augusta VA Healthcare System wait times are generally in keeping - and often better - than their community counterparts. Below are some average wait times for Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center (Augusta VA) by specialty (you can view updated VA wait times data here).
  • Primary Care: 21 days
  • Optometry: 21 days
  • Mental Health: 9 days
  • Women’s Health: 22 days
  • Dermatology: 7 days
  • Urology: 48 days
  • Same-day care: Veterans can request same-day care and be seen by a Primary Care provider that same day. We intentionally schedule our Primary Care providers so that we have some slots available each day to accommodate such requests.
  • In addition, through the VA Mission Act, Augusta VA Healthcare System is able to partner with community healthcare providers to offer more options to Veterans in their healthcare/provider choices.”

WTOC:

“Q3. What are some challenges COVID specifically has presented to the way the VA operates? Has that affected the overall quality of care?”

Martin:

“A3.

  • In-person care was limited at the beginning of the pandemic, but Augusta VA Healthcare System countered that challenge by exponentially expanding virtual care. Using Telehealth platforms, our Veterans can access most of their care from the comfort of their home using a computer, phone, smartphone, or tablet. This has significantly increased our capacity to serve Georgia and South Carolina Veterans throughout the pandemic.
  • Augusta VA Veteran trust scores have reached all-time highs during the pandemic (88.7 percent indicate they trust the care they receive according to our latest survey (surveys are taken quarterly).
  • The willingness of Veterans of all demographics to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a real example of that trust in action. To date, nearly 19,000 people have received the COVID-19 vaccination (Pfizer) through Augusta VA Healthcare System (you can view updated VA vaccination data here).
  • We are also incrementally increasing our in-person care in accordance with CDC and other federal guidelines, and due to our aggressive vaccine programs, we hope to soon return to full, routine, in-person operations alongside the rest of the nation.”

WTOC:

“Q4. What are some solutions to keeping issues like these from happening in the future?”

Martin:

“A4.

  • Again, we can’t speak to specific cases, but Augusta VA has robust Quality Management, Patient Experience, and Patient Advocacy programs that exist to address concerns when they arise and improve processes when care is not in keeping with our high standards.”

WTOC:

“Q5. Is the VA under-staffed? Lacking funding?”

Martin:

“A5.

  • No. The aforementioned data regarding quality of care and other quality metrics indicate Augusta VA staffing and funding is strong enough to serve our Veterans and serve them well.”

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