Veterans criticize care at St. Louis VA hospitals

By LEAH THORSEN | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: July 15, 2014

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — The veterans who came Monday to the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum told of their frustration getting care at Veterans Affairs hospitals.

“I know how to fight a war, but I don’t know how to fight the system that’s supposed to take care of me,” said Michael Saffold Sr., an Army Special Forces veteran who lives in St. Louis.

He attended a town-hall meeting hosted by the American Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force, which conducts annual evaluations of health care quality at VA medical centers and facilities. Representatives are in St. Louis this week to help veterans get the services they need, including care from the health system that has come under fire for long wait times and mismanagement.

Saffold, 52, said he didn’t receive proper diagnosis for a blood clot in his hip at John Cochran VA hospital. He also said he waited more than a year to get a new primary care physician.

He’s not alone in his frustration with wait times.

An audit released last month of 731 VA hospitals and clinics found more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or longer for their first appointments.

The VA St. Louis system, which includes the John Cochran and Jefferson Barracks hospitals and various clinics, ranked fifth worst out of 141 health systems in the country for average wait times for new patients to get specialty appointments. Patients wait an average of nearly three months, according to the audit.

An additional 64,000 who enrolled in the VA system over the past decade have never had appointments, including 1,354 in St. Louis (10th most nationally), 188 in Kansas City, 102 in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and 71 in Columbia, Mo.

For veterans already in the system, waits were much shorter. Established patients at VA facilities in St. Louis waited 2½ days to be seen in primary care. The longest average wait in the state for veterans already in the system was about 10 days for a specialty appointment in Poplar Bluff, sixth-worst in the country.

The audit said wait times for new patients nationwide and in Missouri exceeded the 14-day goal. The wait time for primary care appointments at Columbia’s VA hospital was 43 days, the longest of the state’s four centers.

“I’ve pretty much given up on the VA for services,” said Air Force veteran Wayne Hutchison, 67, who attended the Monday meeting.

He said Jefferson Barracks employees three times have rejected his efforts to get a hearing aid, even though his hearing loss was caused by his work as a jet mechanic.

“I figure the least they could do is give me a hearing aid and some glasses,” said Hutchison of High Ridge. “That’s all I’m asking for.”

About 40 people attended the meeting Monday and some praised the care they have received, including disabled Army veteran Jack Massey of Belleville. He said his VA doctor had called him that day to check on him.

“Let them help you,” Massey said.

Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division in Washington, urged veterans dealing with long wait times and other issues to come to a “crisis command center” this week to get help from Legion officials and community providers.

Veterans can get help filing for VA benefits, advice on legal issues and aid enrolling in VA health care.

The center is open from noon to 8 p.m. today, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and from 8 a.m. to noon Friday, at the St. Louis University School of Law Clinic, 100 North Tucker Boulevard.

Centers opened last month for veterans and family members in Phoenix, Fayetteville, N.C., and El Paso, Texas, have helped more than 1,800 veterans, Jones said. Another is slated to open next week in Fort Collins, Colo.

“We want it to be a healthy system,” said Jones of VA hospitals and clinics. “We don’t want veterans to have to wait.”


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