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Veterans vent frustrations with VA at Fayetteville town hall meeting

About 100 veterans and their families gathered at a local American Legion post Monday to talk about their own experiences with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In sometimes emotional remarks, veterans vented their frustrations with what many called systemic problems at the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Others praised VA workers, saying it was bureaucracy that gummed up the system.

The remarks came over three hours during a town hall hosted by the American Legion at Post 202 on Ramsey Street, a short drive from the local VA hospital.

Fayetteville VA director Elizabeth Goolsby attended, taking center stage to address concerns or, as was often the case, take the brunt of their frustrations.

Veterans complained of long wait times, poor customer service and problems filling their disability claims.

They said the VA churns through doctors, wasting time of patients, and said appointments are often cancelled or they can't get an appointment in the first place.

Goolsby and American Legion officials offered their help, passing out business cards to many veterans.

Goolsby said many of the local VA problems are attributed to a system that can't contain the growth of the past decade.

Last year along, the patient population grew by 7percent, she said, seven times the national average.

Roughly 9,000 new veterans were added to the local VA rolls, Goolsby said, and officials spent 9,000 hours on their first appointments alone.

That, she said, was the equivalent of eight teams of medical professionals working on nothing but new patients - to say nothing of existing patients.

In all, Goolsby said 60,000 patients were seen by the Fayetteville VA last year, and Goolsby said she and others at the VA believe in the system.

"This is truly veterans taking care of veterans," she said. "We take that responsibility very seriously."

Verna Jones, director of the American Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, was among the national staff who traveled to Fayetteville for a weeklong stay that started with the town hall meeting.

She urged participants to stay respectful, but told veterans that officials would help them get the help they deserve.

"You're not asking for anything you're not entitled to," she said.

American Legion officials will host a Veterans Crisis Command Center for four days this week at the post at 834 Ramsey Street.

The crisis center opens at noon today. It will close at 8p.m., then reopen Wednesday and Thursday from 8a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday from 8 a.m. to noon.

American Legion officials came to Fayetteville after spending last week in Phoenix, where VA patients have allegedly died while awaiting care, according to media reports.

Fayetteville was chosen because its wait times are among the worst in the nation and the visit kicks off a national tour that will next take officials to El Paso, Texas, and then Colorado.

According to a nationwide audit released June 9, patients at the Fayetteville VA wait an average of 29 days for a primary care appointment. New patients wait an average of 83 days.

The findings prompted a visit last week from acting VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson, who pledged more support for the medical center.

Goolsby said Monday that some of that help was coming soon.

The Fayetteville VA Medical Center and the Jacksonville VA clinic will add thousands of square feet this summer, she said. But she acknowledged that the additional space wouldn't solve problems.

"The problem is here and now," she said.

Some veterans thought Goolsby and Gibson were making excuses when citing Fayetteville's growth.

One man called it a "bunch of crap," and said officials should have known that, after a decade of war, the need would increase.

Another veteran urged those at the town hall to take out their frustrations on their elected officials instead, urging them to write letters to those up for election this year.

brooksd@fayobserver.com

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