FREDERICK, Md. — At the front desk of Fort Detrick’s health care clinic for veterans, a handful of blank feedback cards, reading “Thanks for a job well done,” wait for patients’ compliments.
“I get so many of these,” said Jim Burger, the Navy veteran who heads the clinic. He hears from veterans who were pleased with their doctor’s care, the polite manner of the assistants at the desk or the expertise of a specialist.
Nationally, the image of health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs is the complete opposite. The department’s secretary, Eric Shinseki, resigned in May and apologized for a failure of leadership at VA hospitals amid allegations that veterans were subject to months-long wait times for appointments and an overcrowded system.
U.S. Rep. John Delaney, D-6th, said he has received calls from veterans who are displeased with the VA’s performance nationally, but he has not heard of any local issues with waiting lists at VA facilities.
“Our constituents give the quality of their treatment pretty high marks,” he said.
Will McDonald, spokesman for Delaney, said the concerns that come to the congressman’s office are focused elsewhere.
“The overwhelming majority of VA cases and VA problems that we’re seeing ... is really dealing with the backlog at the Baltimore VA,” he said.
Disability disputes and slow processing of benefits are the main issues, McDonald said.
Ian Janetta, spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-8th, said the complaints the congressman has received are similarly about disability and pension benefits.
The VA health care facilities in the Frederick County area are Fort Detrick’s VA Community-based Outpatient Clinic, which Burger heads, and the Hagerstown Outpatient Clinic.
According to an internal VA audit released June 9, on-site reviews at those facilities did not find any need for further investigation.
Burger has led the Fort Detrick clinic since it opened in 2011. He said the clinic serves about 3,000 patients and is at 80 percent capacity. It employs three physicians, who work with a team of specialists to treat patients.
The VA hospital in Baltimore processes more appointments than the Washington hospital — about 54,520 as of July 3. The District’s hospital had about 43,780 appointments scheduled.
New patients waited 83 days on average for primary care appointments at the Baltimore facility, and returning patients waited about four days on average.
At Fort Detrick’s VA clinic, some patients may wait about a month to 45 days for an appointment during the summer, when doctors go on vacation, said medical support assistant Anita Guthrie, who schedules appointments. But overall, “there’s no delaying care,” she said.
Richard Holdcraft, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Jefferson, said he has no complaints about his care at the VA facility in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
“I get great meds from them,” he said. “The doctors are all good people, they care, they listen.”
Holdcraft, who is retired, said he was diagnosed with diabetes after being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He has also visited Fort Detrick’s outpatient facility for problems with his back.
The nurses, doctors and staff he’s interacted with have been friendly and courteous. He hasn’t had any issues getting appointments scheduled.
“I think they’re doing a great job,” he said.
In the internal VA audit, the VA’s inspector general flagged two nearby facilities for further review: the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center and Martinsburg Medical Center in West Virginia.
The VA found that new patients attempting to schedule their first appointment at the Martinsburg center waited, on average, 47 days for a primary care appointment as of July 3. Patients who had already seen doctors at that center waited about three days on average for a primary care doctor appointment.
The wait is “a prospective measure” in the VA report, Veterans Affairs spokesman Michael McAleer said regarding the Martinsburg center.
“Prospective data is a look forward to all appointments in the future, and this number changes based on numerous factors, including cancellation by patients,” he said.
According to McAleer, part of the issue with long waiting times is with hiring and retaining health care providers.
“Several providers retired or resigned on relatively short notice (at Martinsburg). VA doctors are not required to provide a long notice or provide transition to patients care like in other medical systems,” he said. “On the other side, it is not unusual that hiring physicians may take three to six months.”
At the Washington facility, new patients waited 38 days on average for a primary care appointment. Their returning patients wait an average of six days.
Hugh Warner, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3285 in Frederick, said it’s the same for anyone scheduling an appointment for medical care.
“You expect to wait, whether it’s military or civilian,” he said.
McAleer said the Martinsburg center is taking action to shorten that wait.
“We have added new patients visit appointments on Thursday afternoons and revised the scheduling grid to accommodate new patients more quickly. We continue to use extended hours and Saturdays for new patient availability. We have emphasized the option of phone visits with the provider or registered nurse care manager for selected appropriate patients,” he said.
The center is also hiring more primary care physicians and offering free child care for patients with evening appointments.
Representatives of the nonprofit watchdog Project for Government Oversight and the national Veterans of Foreign Wars said their hotlines for VA issues have not received any calls about Fort Detrick or Hagerstown facilities.
American Legion Department of Maryland Adjutant Russell Myers said town hall meetings will be held in Perryville, Cumberland and Baltimore in the near future to gather more information from veterans.