Line getting shorter for vets’ doctor visits
ARLINGTON, Va. — All veterans with service-connected medical needs now will be able to see a doctor within 30 days of asking for an appointment, instead of having to wait the six months or more it has taken vets in the past to be seen by a doctor.
Plagued by huge backlogs, the Department of Veterans Affairs started to reduce the long waiting lists — which, at their peak in July 2002, ran some 300,000 patients long, said VA spokeswoman Laurie Tranter.
Now, service-related medical visits will be scheduled within a month of a patient’s request. If the veteran can’t been seen at his or her regular facility, the veteran will be seen by a contracted medical provider or at another VA facility, with any extra expenses incurred paid for by the VA, Tranter said.
“We’ve been really working at getting this controlled and the number of those waiting now is less than 30,000,” Tranter said.
In October 2002, the VA began the program by first securing priority access appointments, those within 30 days, for veterans with disabilities rated at 50 percent or more. For the severely disabled, the priority includes care for medical problems that are not service-connected.
The new directive, announced late last week, covers hospitalization and outpatient care for all vets seeking service-connected care.
“Caring for veterans with service-connected medical problems is a major reason VA exists,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi said in a statement. “This directive should ease the minds of veterans who no longer have to wait for health-care appointments.”
While it’s progress, the directive isn’t quite enough and skirts a bigger issue of a lack of funding given to the VA, said Robert Norton, deputy director for government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.
“We can surmise that with the growing number of injured servicemen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, there was the need for this rule,” Norton said. “For every soldier sadly killed by a roadside bomb, there is usually any number of soldiers wounded ... and their future care is the responsibility of the VA. … [If] you’re a veteran and you need care for something related to your service, you ought to be able to get an appointment within 30 days.
“But they’re deflecting from the real issue, and that is that the VA is not fully funded to meet the growing demands of veterans,” Norton said.
That onus rests with the White House and Congress, Norton said, neither of which has adequately addressed the problem of funding.
“It’s a combination of the administration not asking for enough funding and Congress ducking the question of mandatory funding,” Norton said, meaning they enact laws but don’t allocate enough money to fully pay for their enactment.
There’s no denying the department doesn’t have all the money it needs, Tranter said.