Hundreds of veterans relying on the Victoria VA Clinic for care have had appointments delayed by at least 31 days, according to an analysis of Veterans Administration records from September to January.
Moreover, of the 940 VA facilities across the nation, the Victoria outpatient clinic ranks among the 100 worst in terms of delayed care.
Jeremy Pena, a 26-year-old Army veteran in Victoria, said he is one of the lucky ones.
“It does take a long time for the appointments, but there’s also so many people who go in there,” he said. “If we had a bigger VA, I think it would take less time” to get an appointment.
The Victoria outpatient clinic has three permanent primary care physicians to meet the recommended staffing ratios.
Data on the Victoria clinic showed 5,650 appointments from September to January, of which 279 patients, or about 5 percent of the patients, waited more than 31 days to see a doctor for services related to mental health, nutrition, podiatry and social work services.
Veterans are allowed to seek private care outside the VA system, and Pena has taken advantage of his options.
He was referred by a VA doctor to Citizens Medical Center this year for surgery related to an injury he suffered while serving in Iraq.
“Yes, the appointment is lengthy as far as them saying, ‘OK we’ll get you an appointment in three or four weeks,'” Pena said. “But if it’s an emergency, they’ll fit you in right then and there.”
He called his experience at the Victoria clinic positive, but said he is selective about making appointments and taking care of himself.
“If I had a broken bone, I’d go in there. That’s a real emergency,” he said.
The Veterans Administration has been the focus of a national scandal that has revealed systemic and years-long problems with patient wait times.
The Associated Press began a national investigation into the matter after allegations surfaced that dozens of veterans died at the Phoenix VA while waiting for care.
Nenette Madla, a spokeswoman for the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, said the Victoria clinic is about half a percentage point above the national average for timely scheduling appointments.
She anticipates continued improvement on scheduling.
Laura Salazar, 31, of Victoria, said between trying to get an appointment and the number of canceled appointments, her father, an Army veteran, hasn’t received the care he deserves.
Salazar, the primary caretaker for her father, Enrique Garcia, 66, has been trying to get an appointment since February.
“I take my dad to ER because I can’t get in,” he said. “Then they get all mad and say they’re not paying for the hospital stay or his medication … If you’re sick, you’re sick.”
She said something needs to change at the Victoria clinic.
“These people served in the military; these people fought in wars for us,” she said. “It’s no way to be treated.”
She said her father has received better care when they’ve traveled to the San Antonio VA hospital.
San Antonio has five facilities, all of which have better ratings than the Victoria clinic in terms of delayed care.
“They need to learn how to treat their veterans” in Victoria, Salazar said. “These people fought for us. They deserve better honor and respect than what they get here.”
As for Pena, he is in a wait-and-see process right now at the Victoria clinic.
About two months ago, he began the process of having his disability case re-evaluated. He is currently listed as 60 percent disabled.
He had to resign from his job at Invista because of his war injuries – seven herniated disks in his spine, degenerative disk disease and arthritis in his neck and spine.
“I’m not as limber as I should be at 26,” he said.
At this point, his mantra is about survival: ensuring his family has enough food on the table and his daughters, a 5-month-old and a 3-year-old, are taken care of.
“I’ve got some friends in California who deployed with me and have been with since basic training,” Pena said. “He’s now 100 percent disabled with the same thing I have. We both were in fire fights, we’d both been hit by rockets and indirect fire at our FOB (forward operating base) in Iraq. It took almost a year and a half for them to evaluate him.”
April 9, 2015