SANFORD, N.C. — At least 6,000 veterans live in Sanford, and that population is reportedly growing. But whether new to the area or not, many of the city's former military have likely received care in the state's VA system — which recently has been criticized by one of the state's U.S. Senators.
Starting in late March, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan began drawing attention to inefficiencies in the VA system, especially at a regional office in Winston-Salem. That office handles most North Carolina cases and took, on average, nearly a year to process each veteran's claim, she wrote in a March letter to the U.S. Secretary of Veteran's Affairs. The agency's stated goal is a four-month wait time.
Calling the system "deplorable," "unacceptable" and "alarming" in the letter, Hagan in late April joined 66 other senators in asking President Barack Obama to address the system, which they said is getting more and more bogged down every day.
As Memorial Day approaches, Hagan's letters and television appearances have shifted focus from the VA to recent reports on instances of sexual assault in the military. But to local veterans, the VA is still a concern that needs addressing. Some told The Herald they're grateful for the free health care services they receive, but that they think improvements are needed.
Todd Miller, 31, goes to the Fayetteville VA hospital, where he said he doesn't have many issues with wait times — although he acknowledged that's not the case for everyone. He said his experience is partially because he's young and hadn't been to many other doctors, so his files were all in one place. Also, he said, it's due in part to his attitude and approach — Miller worked in logistics for the military, so he understands that a large bureacracy often moves slowly.
"You get out of it what you put into it, and you just have to know the system," he said.
Kevin Power, a 64-year-old veteran, has a similar attitude after decades of experience with the system.
"If you're not on top of things, you can be your own worst enemy," he said. "You need to keep track of what you need to do for yourself because the VA doesn't."
Power, for example, said he is on cholesterol medicine and went through about 10 different prescriptions in the past four years before finding one that didn't trigger an allergic reaction. But a VA doctor recently and inexplicably took him off that medicine and put him back on one to which he was allergic.
Power said he may have died had he not noticed the label and remembered that its scientific name belonged to one of the many drugs he had tried in the past.
But Power — who goes to the Durham VA hospital — said he generally receives good care. He said he used to go to Fayetteville but was transferred to Durham for surgery once and decided to keep going there — as many of the doctors are from Duke University Medical Center, the nearby hospital attached to one of the nation's premier medical schools.
Miller, who was shot three times in the right shoulder, suffers from a hand injury and might also have traumatic brain injury from a wreck — injuries he suffered in Afghanistan — said he has some issues with the Fayetteville hospital, including front desk staffers who are often rude or inattentive and primary care that's not very personalized — as well as foreign doctors who sometimes struggled to understand him.
"I can't really complain, though," he said. "I get good care most of the time, and it's free."
But Power, who estimated he has had close to 50 surgeries dating back to 1969, said he has a problem getting timely service. On April 17, he had his first appointment in more than one-and-a-half years, although he was supposed to be having checkups every six months for his injuries, which he received in an ambush in Vietnam with heavy rocket and mortar fire.
He said his doctor quit and in the confusion that followed, the office lost his paperwork, causing him to wait three times as long as he should have.
"In some instances, the VA is really great, and in some instances, they drop the ball," Power said. "There's a million different ways to look at it."
Like Miller, Power said primary care isn't very personalized. He also pays for a private doctor in Sanford, who found a heart problem requiring surgery — which Power said VA doctors had missed. Although he eventually had the heart surgery done at the VA and was pleased with the outcome, he said he would only go to private doctors if he could afford it.
Power said he's grateful for the free care but wishes — and believes — it could be better. That starts with paying doctors and office staff more, he said, so that the VA system can compete for the best employees. He said he also appreciates the help of groups like the Disabled American Veterans, with a local office in Broadway, which operates a free shuttle to the Durham and Fayetteville hospitals. Appointments are suggested; the ride coordinator can be reached at (919) 842-9288.
One development that will help local veterans, said John Sandrock, veterans services officer at the Lee County Enrichment Center, is the outpatient clinic the Fayetteville hospital is trying to start in Lee County. The VA began looking for local medical office space to rent in March, and while officials declined Thursday to comment on exactly how far along that process is, they confirmed plans to locate a clinic in Lee County soon. Sandrock said the news couldn't have come at a better time, with VA hospitals under increasing strain due to troops returning en masse from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Lee County's veteran population booming due to Fort Bragg's proximity.
"I think it's wonderful because Sanford sits right between Fayetteville and Durham, and neither (hospital) is particularly close," Sandrock said. "So this will help here in Sanford, and maybe also cut down some on the wait times at those two hospitals."