In Lakewood, VA officials hear from frustrated vets

As his back pain swelled last year, Richard Scheeder could not get into the Seattle Veterans Affairs hospital for the test he needed to move forward with a medical plan. In fact, he could not even get his phone calls answered for 10 days at the clinic he needed.

It wasn’t the first time that Navy veteran Scheeder, 77, ran an into overwhelmed VA Puget Sound medical system in recent years. The delays he experienced were so bad he wondered if anyone in the system’s administration was paying attention to its shortfalls.

“Do you know how the organization is running?” the veteran from Seabeck asked a panel of VA Puget Sound administrators. “You don’t have a critical system for documenting the problems you have, managing them through and keeping track of them.”

Scheeder’s frustrations brought him to a VA Puget Sound town hall in Lakewood Tuesday night attended by more than 100 veterans. They had open ears from VA Puget Sound Director Michael Murphy and several of his top administrators.

VA hospitals around the country are holding similar forums to hear from veterans as the troubled agency seeks reforms following reports that schedulers doctored data to hide extended delays patients experienced in receiving care. Those allegations led VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in May.

The agency’s investigation into misleading scheduling practices has not focused specifically on the VA Puget Sound, but its hospitals were flagged for “further review” by the VA Inspector General this summer. It’s not clear what caught the Inspector General’s attention.

At the forum, a portrait of an overworked hospital system emerged from veterans who vented about inexperienced front-line VA personnel, confusing information about VA benefits and inconvenient services that do not cater to working veterans.

“If it wasn’t for me and my brothers and sisters you wouldn’t have a job,” said Air Force veteran George Ostrander of Steilacoom. VA staff has “to have a little more empathy than ‘Sorry I can’t help you.’ That’s what we get.”

VA officials struck a friendly tone throughout the evening, apologizing for long waits and pledging to follow up with individual veterans. The number of patients moving through VA Puget Sound each year has nearly doubled since 2001, according to data obtained by The News Tribune.

“The simple fact of the military is that we’re demobilizing from two wars, the military is downsizing, we have an aging veteran population, and we also have a situation where the economy sputtered and is only now recovering. What that meant is we have a lot of people coming in the doors,” said Ron Hand of the Seattle branch of the Veterans Benefits Administration.

“We’re making progress, but we agree that claims are taking too long,” he said.

Wait times are declining for new patients in the regional system, Murphy said. The system experienced a surge turnover among primary doctors last year and is only now at almost full strength.

As a result, the average wait for a first appointment declined to 39 days this month, down from an average of 60 days in June. Established patients usually receive appointments within a week of a requested date.

In one instance Tuesday, VA Puget Sound behavioral health director Joel Mitchell offered to make a personal appointment with a veteran who said he has struggled to receive mental health care. The veteran said he had been suicidal recently.

“You’re here and I’m thankful you’re here and we can do something about that,” Mitchell said.

Several of the veterans urged the agency to prepare for an ever greater numbers of former military service members.

“We need more reaching out, more help, and proper diagnoses,” said Paul Roth, 36, a Navy veteran who served on the ground in Iraq. He said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and wants to see the VA offer more mental health services after normal working hours to reach veterans with busy daytime schedules.

The VA Puget Sound is holding another town hall at 6 p.m. Wednesday night at the Southcenter DoubleTree hotel in Tukwila.