VA Hospitals Struggle With Patient Surge

Reply Wed 30 Jul, 2008 12:30 pm
VA hospitals struggle with patient surge
By David Pittman | Morris News Service

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

AMARILLO - It's a perfect storm of demand for medical care.

Vietnam War veterans are aging, more Gulf War vets need medical care and the number of soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to increase. The Department of Veterans Affairs health care system is stretched thin, serving nearly 8 million patients nationwide. VA hospitals across the country, including the Thomas E. Creek Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Amarillo, are struggling to meet veterans' needs.

Officials have tracked about 1,500 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking VA care in Amarillo. "There's a big push to meet the needs of these guys," said Franke Robertson, chief of admission and referral service.

The hospital has tried to increase services to meet the demand. "We are looking at adding staff and other capacities to improve our times in our more difficult areas," reads a letter from the hospital's public affairs office.

Jim Benson, national VA spokesman, said about 300,000 of the nearly 1 million veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan need health care.

Overall, patient visits have increased from about 200,000 to 300,000 a year.

"We've had a strong, steady increase over the last several years," Benson said.

Mental illness addressed

Mental illness caused by the stress of military conflict is receiving greater attention, and more veterans - even some from decades past - are coming forward for treatment.

The increase in mental health patients is putting a strain on the VA's work force, said Will Wilson, president-elect of the American Psychological Association's division of Society of Military Psychology.

"Due to the fact they are hiring so many mental health workers, they are saying they are woefully undermanned," said Wilson, a retired Army colonel and faculty chair at Capella University in Minneapolis. The Amarillo VA hospital is in the process of hiring a staff of 21 mental health care professionals, Robertson said.

Hospital administrators announced in January plans to build a $7 million, 20,000-square-foot clinic for mental health operations. The project should be finished by 2010.

Nursing shortage hurts

The national nursing shortage also has impacted the VA.

"There is more of a shortage in the VA than nationally in general hospitals," said Doris Lippman, an Army nurse who teaches at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

The VA has created academic partnerships, scholarships and incentives to address the issue.

"There's a real concern about the shortage," Lippman said. She attributes the shortage to the VA's excellent pension program leading to early retirement and a generally older work force. Robertson said the problem in Amarillo isn't so bad.

"I don't think it is any worse from what I'm hearing from my peers in the community. Everybody is scrambling to get nurses."

Wait times disputed

The Amarillo VA hospital's goal is to make sure all new patients have a primary care appointment within 30 days. The average wait time is eight days.

For established patients, the average wait time for a primary care appointment is one day, and it's two to 11 days for specialty clinics.

"Our wait times are better than average across the VA system," Robertson said.

Larry Scott, founder and editor of the blog VaWatchDog.org, won't accept any published wait times from VA hospitals.

The Oregon veteran points to separate July 2005, September 2007 and May 2008 reports from the VA Office of Inspector General that found schedulers were not properly making or recording appointments in VA hospitals in the upper Midwest. The reports said "the accuracy of reported waiting times could not be relied upon and the (electronic waiting lists) at medical facilities were grossly understated." "The basic problem is the VA doesn't get the money it needs," Scott said.

If there is any problem with a crunch in services at the Amarillo VA hospital, it's gone unnoticed by many at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Amarillo.

"You might have some out there with complaints about the VA," said Bill Frazier, a former master sergeant in the Army. "But most of us who go out there regularly love it. I don't have any complaints about the VA."

Frazier said the problem wasn't affecting Amarillo as much as other VA hospitals because there is no military base close.

Former Air Force Staff Sgt. Chuck Clarke said he used to wait for hours at the Amarillo hospital when he first started visiting it decades ago. Service has improved since then. "Now I go out there, in 20 minutes I'm in," Clarke, 65, said.

Despite all the possible complaints against VA care, the Amarillo hospital is still the provider of choice for Frazier.

"I can go to any doctor I want, but I choose to go to the VA," he said.

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