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Health system works for many area vets
New Oakwood clinic seems to have helped ease crunch
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Veteran and volunteer Bob Kelly helps Vietnam veteran Charles Millsap down from the Disabled American Veterans van on Thursday as World War II vet Martin Aggen steps out at Big Lots. The men and another Buford vet took the van to the Atlanta V.A. hospital and back. - photo by NAT GURLEY

As a state legislative officer for Disabled American Veterans, Gary McBride has had an insider’s look at how the Department of Veterans Affairs operates, and the picture’s not that pretty.

While many veterans get much-needed services and in a timely way, others aren’t as fortunate.

“There are veterans out there who are suffering, are languishing, not getting their benefits, and they are dying,” said McBride, a Hall County resident and member of DAV Chapter 17 based in Gainesville. “And their families are affected.

“This is a heart-wrenching job, and that’s why we do everything we can through public service to not only give people a hope but assistance and stand in the gap where the VA has failed.”

McBride was among several area veterans who spoke last week about the recent uproar over veterans nationwide having to wait exhaustively for treatment, where, according to a USA Today study, the average time it takes for a new patient to get a primary care appointment at the Atlanta VA hospital in Decatur is 56.5 days.

And while nearly all those surveyed have had some kind of negative experience, they said they were generally happy with services overall and hadn’t endured the nightmarish delays some have shared in the wake of a mushrooming crisis that started at the Phoenix VA.

The local veterans have said the new clinic off Thurmon Tanner Parkway in Oakwood, replacing a cramped building off Mundy Mill Road, has helped a lot, with incoming American Legion commander Dave Dellinger of Gainesville saying it has been “a godsend” for many vets.

“They seem to be meeting (appointment) times pretty well,” said Dellinger, who was serving coffee to veterans at the clinic last week, “so I think this (clinic) was a good thing for the veterans.”

The situation is much darker elsewhere.

Richard Griffin, the VA’s acting inspector general, told a Senate committee several weeks ago that his investigators had found 17 deaths among veterans awaiting appointments in Phoenix.

He said in his report last week the dead veterans’ medical records and death certificates as well as autopsy reports would have to be examined before he could say whether any of them were caused by delays in getting appointments.

The scandal worsened with revelations that officials falsified records covering up delays at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide, eventually prompting Eric Shinseki to resign as secretary of veterans affairs.

The growing crisis has Washington seeking a legislative response.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has co-sponsored the Veteran-Centered Access to Coordinated Health Care Act, which would allow veterans to receive care at a non-VA facility closer to home, as so many have to drive for hours just to wait at the closest VA facility, said his spokeswoman, Kelley McNabb.

Two weeks ago, as a preliminary response to the issue, the House passed another bill Collins had co-sponsored that gives the head of the VA the authority to fire poor-performing employees, among other actions.

“Our veterans have had to live with the problems at the VA for far longer than we’ve been talking about it,” Collins said Thursday.

The Atlanta VA Medical Center came under fire last year after two reports issued in mid-April by the VA’s Office of Inspector General detailed allegations of mismanagement and poor patient care linked to three deaths. In a fourth case, a man in a wheelchair came to the Atlanta VA emergency room complaining of hearing voices but was not admitted and later found in a locked hospital bathroom dead of an apparent suicide.

McBride said he worked to develop a 2,000-page report nearly three years ago after a few suicides at the Atlanta VA hospital.

“We went to Washington to present the report and, long story short, it didn’t change things,” he said. “And now there’s this — people rightly thinking, ‘Look at how our veterans are being treated.’ And it’s not just in Phoenix; it’s all over the country.”

A July 2011 report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General states that its Office of Healthcare Inspections had conducted an evaluation regarding “inadequate management of the electronic waiting list” for several mental health clinics at the Atlanta VA hospital after a complaint about excessive wait times.

“We substantiated that several clinics had significantly high numbers of patients on their (waiting lists) over a period of months in fiscal year 2010, and we substantiated that facility managers were aware of the (lists) but were slow in taking actions to address the condition,” the report states.

“We are unaware of any completed suicides; however, we did find evidence of ... patients who attempted suicide, were hospitalized or presented to the emergency department. We did not evaluate whether these events occurred as a direct result of being placed on (waiting lists), or whether they would have occurred in the course of regular, ongoing treatment.

“Nevertheless, large (waiting lists) are inherently problematic as they represent impaired access to ongoing care.”

Contacted last week about the growing crisis, the Atlanta VA told The Times by email that its “top priority is to deliver high-quality care that our veterans have earned and deserve.

“In delivering that care, we have a responsibility to ensure that services are accessible and available in a timely manner.”

Officials said they are expanding “sites of care,” such as the opening of the new clinic last year in Oakwood, as well as hiring additional providers, offering Saturday appointments in primary care clinics and referring dental and ophthalmology patients to community providers as needed.

And the VA plans to offer dental care at the Oakwood clinic, beginning this summer.

The VA also is building an outpatient clinic in downtown Decatur that will provide a wide range of services, including mental health, radiology and prosthetics.

In addition, the department is awaiting congressional approval for a 64,000-square-foot multispecialty outpatient clinic in Cobb County and outpatient clinics in Pickens, Newton and Pike counties.

The department also provides the local DAV chapter with a van to shuttle veterans daily from Hall County to Atlanta for routine appointments.

A couple of veterans returning Thursday from a trip spoke about their VA experiences.

Martin Aggen of Gainesville first joked that the negative attention the VA has gotten recently “must have worked because everything today was ahead of schedule.”

Otherwise, for him, the VA service has been more responsive than doctors not affiliated with the VA.

“You have to wait longer for (private doctors),” said the World War II Navy veteran.

Charles Millsap, a Gainesville resident who served in the Vietnam War, also had no complaints.

“Everything I’ve had an appointment for, they’ve done pretty nice for me ... I”m satisfied with what they’re doing so far,” he said. “If they don’t (do well), I’ll speak out.”

One of the group’s biggest issues traveling to Atlanta is finding parking.

Van driver Bob Kelly said he drops off and picks up the veterans at the hospital’s front door, so the worry of finding a parking spot belongs to him.

On the trips back and forth, he also hears the veterans talking about their treatment.

And generally “they’re not upset at all,” Kelly said. “They say things are going well. I haven’t gotten any negative comments, but these guys are going in mainly for routine stuff — X-rays and things of that nature.”

Dellinger said that some veterans have expressed views that show they have really struggled with getting care.

“I hear this every once in a while — I don’t feel exactly the same way, but I’ve heard it — and that is they delay you hoping you’ll either give up or you’ll die,” he said. “That is the mindset for some of the veterans.”

The Associated Press contributed to the reports.