SANTA FE, N.M. — When John Breneiser underwent cataract surgery in 2011 at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque, doctors discovered another problem. The retina of his right eye was detached. The disabled Vietnam veteran would need more surgery.
Three years later, Breneiser was still waiting.
The pain at times was searing. His vision out of that eye gradually eroded. Yet weekly phone calls to a veterans outpatient clinic to schedule an operation yielded only promises of callbacks that never came. Finally, last week, with still no word from the clinic, Breneiser went to a private doctor and paid thousands of dollars out of his own pocket for the procedure.
“I got tired of waiting for the VA and waiting for the VA and waiting for the VA,” the 64-year-old Santa Fe resident said. “It takes forever to get anything done.”
His experience is just one of a growing number of stories of agonizingly long delays in care offered by the nation’s veterans hospitals.
An audit released last week by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed a wide range of problems with the department’s 731 hospitals and outpatient clinics. Among the issues: 57,000 veterans, or 90 percent of all new enrollees, waited more than three months for their first medical appointments. Another 64,000 never saw a doctor at all after being enrolled in the system for a decade, despite repeated requests. And more than three-quarters of all facilities had manipulated data at least once, some creating “dummy” lists to make the wait times look more favorable.
In New Mexico, more than 1,000 veterans have waited three or more months for initial medical appointments, and more than 3,000 vets were assigned to doctors who never saw them at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque. A recent VA audit said 21 veterans died while waiting on that list.
For many veterans, the problem getting so much national attention now is old news. It is even a source of gallows humor in some corners, despite the grim statistics. At the Santa Fe American Legion post on a recent evening, bartender Maxine Sandoval noticed a woman at the bar who had not been served.
“How long you been here?” she asked.
“Three days,” the woman responded, jokingly.
“Sounds like the VA hospital,” Sandoval said. “Are you on the dummy list?”
Surviving war and the health care system
Breneiser, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, joined the Navy in 1969 and was aboard the USS Noxubee, a gasoline tanker, when Viet Cong swimmers hit it with a mine as it was anchored off the mouth of the Cua Viet River. The blast blew a hole in the tanker’s hull. The crew kept the ship afloat, and there were no fatalities.
Breneiser said he paid no attention to his veterans benefits until a buddy pushed him to see a doctor in 2002. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and classified as 100 percent disabled. The classification means his medical needs are covered as long as he goes to a VA hospital, but more often than not the experience has been anything but satisfying.
When doctors told him he needed surgery, he said, it took two years to finally get the operation. On several occasions, he said, he has spent as long as eight hours at the veterans hospital in Albuquerque waiting to see a doctor. A couple of times he got in faster by telling a staffer that, on a pain scale of 1 to 10, he was a 12.
He never did get the call for his retina surgery, he said. He ended up paying about $4,000 out of his own pocket to have it done by a local doctor. Medicare covered the rest.
After his blood pressure medicine ran out in April, he called Santa Fe’s outpatient clinic to get new blood work that was required to renew his prescription. He says he finally got a return call last week and was told he couldn’t get an appointment until July.
Breneiser said he is reluctant to go.
“The last friend of mine who went down there for help almost got arrested,” he said.
That friend is Manuel Saiz, 63, another Vietnam Navy veteran who survived 30 years of work as a police officer unscathed before breaking his back after he fell off a ladder while working at a local hardware store. He says he got frustrated after talking to a VA health center staffer on the phone, who told him they did not have his name in the VA health care system, even though he says he has been part of it since the early 1970s. So he popped into the Santa Fe outpatient clinic to straighten it out.
The woman behind the desk there scanned his veteran’s identification card and told him he’s still not in the system. Saiz’s frustration alarmed the woman. She turned to a co-worker and said, “Call the cops!”
He left but came back later. This time, a different staff member scanned Saiz’s identification card and found him in the system.
Still, he was asked to fill out more paperwork for a procedure he’s been getting there for years to relieve pain in his foot. They said they would call him back to set up an appointment — but they never did.
He said they told him in July 2013 that they could see him in October. He told them, “If I don’t croak by then … I’ll see you in October.”
While the audit states that at least 21 New Mexico veterans died while waiting for service, no one has confirmed a direct correlation between the wait time and the deaths. Bill Armstrong, a spokesman for the New Mexico Veterans Affairs Health Care System, said via email that the state does not yet have a copy of the waiting list or the names of those who died. He also said the VA would not comment on complaints about the Santa Fe center.
What took so long?
New Mexico’s five congressional delegates have all stepped into the fray, pushing for new laws ensuring more timely care and calling for deeper investigations. This week, both the Senate and the House passed bills making it easier for veterans to access health care with commitments to fund external care and hire more doctors and nurses, among other measures.
“The VA is suffering from a systemic failure that is affecting the health and well-being of our nation’s heroes, and it’s clear we need action to restore transparency and accountability,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said this week after the bipartisan bill passed.
Many local veterans welcome the push for reforms. Still, they wonder what took so long. Many say they have been sending complaints to elected officials for years, and nothing was done.
Ernie Durr, a Vietnam veteran, called the sudden interest by elected officials “jumping in on a bandwagon … it’s a ‘press’ thing.”
Still, the latest revelations have sparked plenty of reflection. When Durr, 67, read that 21 New Mexico veterans had died while waiting for treatment, he teared up.
“I would have stepped to the back of the line for them,” he said.
On a recent afternoon at the Santa Fe American Legion post, a Vietnam veteran walked across the room in a slow, crooked gate, wincing in pain.
“It’s sciatica,” said the man, a former Marine who goes by the name Felipe. He asked that his full name not be used. He said a six-month wait to see a doctor in the VA system here is not unusual.
So he was relieved recently, when, during a spike in pain, he visited the outpatient clinic in Santa Fe and found no one waiting in line. But instead of seeing a doctor, he said, he was asked to schedule an appointment and return about six weeks later.
Not everyone’s experiences are the same. Some of the veterans The New Mexican interviewed for this story praised the local veterans center for holding Thursday night counseling sessions and said they appreciate the doctors who care for them.
Durr, 67, said he has twice been diagnosed with skin cancer on his leg, and both times VA doctors in Albuquerque performed timely and successful surgery on him.
“It’s amazing how much care they gave me,” he said.
But he’s had his share of waiting for help, too, both in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
His wife, Margaret, is less forgiving. She said she has watched staff members at the Santa Fe outpatient clinic put people on hold and then take a few minutes to go eat a sandwich. The doctors there, she and her husband say, are good. The staffers are not friendly.
And you wait a lot, she said.
Ernie Durr agrees.
“As servicemen, how many years did we wait in line?” he said. “That’s the system. Go on in and stand in line. We paid our dues. We shouldn’t have to stand in line anymore.”
Patrick Malone contributed to this story.