VA Patients Resort To Desperate Measures - kcentv.com - KCEN HD - Waco, Temple, and Killeen

VA Patients Resort To Desperate Measures

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 (KCEN) – While local VA leadership admits it's struggling to meet the needs of local veterans, many of them are turning to other veteran organizations for help.

Others are driving hundreds of miles for medical and mental health care.

Vietnam Veteran Hank Haun, (Army Ret.), knows what it's like to wait on the VA for years.

“It took me a long time before I even got an X-Ray on my back,” Haun says.

He thinks about the massive influx of post-9/11 veterans, many of them with deep emotional, psychological, and physical wounds, as he reflects on how he had to wait for VA medical care.

Haun says, “The older vets are trying to make sure that they don't have to go through that."

As commander of VFW post 9192 near Fort Hood, he's part of an army of veterans who are filling in the gaps in the overwhelmed and confusing VA medical system on a volunteer basis.

Veterans who get caught up in the backlog are resorting to veteran-run organizations, like the VFW, for answers, whether they’re young or old.

“We have WWII vets still coming in and wanting to know what they can do,” Haun says.

If their problem is about medical care, a service officer helps answer questions, fill out forms, get appointments, or reach the right organization.

If they're not getting the mental health help they need, they'll find someone who can tell them where to turn.

They’ll also find someone who understands.

“We can recognize it,” Haun says about Post Traumatic Stress.

Veterans can also turn to DAV’s and American Legion posts, like post 223 in Killeen.

The post’s commander, Sheldon Shouls, (Army Ret.), tells veterans, “Be persistent in whatever you're trying to do, and remember, there's always your local post, there's state posts, and national."

Service officers can point veterans in the right direction, which often means sending them to VA health care staff.

Many times, once that happens, they end up getting passed from person to person, each one telling them something completely different.

So, then they end up right back at the VFW, DVA, or American Legion.

“They get a runaround, but I think everybody is trying to do their job. It's just a complicated procedure when you start talking to that many people."

The Temple VA Medical Center serves more patients than any other in the country, except for San Antonio.

To make matters worse, it’s also taking on veterans from hundreds of miles away.

Haun says, “I think it’s because it is one of the better facilities in Texas.”

He’s seen veterans who drive all the way down from Waxahaxie and even up from Big Bend for appointments at already overwhelmed facilities.

“It could be there's so many, the wait times are so long that they get fed up,” Haun says.

Shouls says most of his American Legion members are local, but that he does have some from as far away as Ohio.

“We do have a lot of veteran members that come from out of state that are part of this post,” Shouls says. “They're from out of state, or from longer distances away, and for some reason they decided to keep their membership here.”

Other veterans live in places so rural that getting to a VA medical center takes hours.

The result of the growing volume of patients is that disorganization compounds the existing, massive appointment backlog.

Central Texas Veterans Health Care System leadership blames the delays on the mass creation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and also on the requirement that active duty patients must take priority over veterans waiting for disability exams due to force protection reasons.

Central Texas Veterans Health Care System Director Sallie Houser-Hanfelder, FACHE, acknowledged and pledged to address many organizational problems at a closed press conference with selected, local reporters on Thursday.

Among a long list of other major changes, Houser-Hanfelder says she wants to find ways to get veterans the care they need through providers much closer to home -- an idea Congress is also mulling over.

She said she was not aware that phone calls to her executive office from veterans who were having trouble with appointments were being turned away.

After town halls and discussions with her staff, Houser-Hanfelder says it’s clear that poor communication is the biggest complaint and productivity is also far below par.

“There are pockets where customer service is a big issue,” she said in the press conference.

In response to that, Houser-Hanfelder is now asking veterans who need help to contact the executive team instead of patient advocates.

The executive team will then direct them to the right person who can help them at the lowest level.

The effort is meant to make sure veterans don’t receive confusing and conflicting information when they’re referred to various staff members.

Less confusion for veterans would mean less pressure on veterans, like Haun and Shouls, who have always volunteered their time to help fellow service members.

"The test will be when the veterans trust us again,” Houser-Hanfelder says.

As Haun prepares his agenda at the VFW Post for the year ahead, he hopes to hold town halls for veterans at the VFW too.

“That's one of the things that we want to do,” Haun says, “Not only see if maybe we can get some of the VA reps and one or two of the doctors from Darnall to explain what is available to them.”

Reporter: Sophia Stamas sstamas@kcentv.com

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