Fayetteville veterans voice VA frustrations to hospital director
Posted June 16, 2014
Fayetteville, N.C. — Tracy Billups heard negative stories about the Veterans Affairs hospital system while serving in the U.S. Navy, but she wanted to give the system the benefit of the doubt.
After complaining of stomach pain to VA doctors for years and being misdiagnosed, it was discovered she had ovarian cancer.
“Luckily, a doctor here saw that but that was after demanding it and going through a series of tests,” she said.
Billups detailed her experiences with the Fayetteville VA Medical Center during a tension-filled town hall meeting at American Legion Post 202 Monday night. More than 50 veterans filled a meeting room to voice their frustrations to hospital director Elizabeth Goolsby and American Legion national officials.
“For the most part, you have your appointments, you never have the same doctor so they never know you,” said Billups, whose complaint was echoed by a number of veterans. “They act like we’re here to serve them, and not the other way around.”
The meeting, part of a nationwide tour by the American Legion to hear patient concerns, comes less than a week after Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson visited the Fayetteville hospital and announced it would receive $7.4 million to help address the facility’s wait times. The federal funding will help divert some veterans to nearby medical clinics.
A nationwide audit found that new patients at the Fayetteville facility wait an average of 83 days for their first appointment - the third-longest wait time in the country. Current patients wait an average of 29 days for a primary care appointment.
Veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment, according to VA guidelines.
The audit was ordered after reports in April that veterans were dying while waiting for care in Phoenix. A preliminary federal review found that long patient waits and falsified records were common throughout VA hospitals nationwide.
In May, two Durham VA employees were placed on administrative leave for allegedly engaging in inappropriate scheduling practices.
Across the country, more than 57,000 veterans waited 90 days or more for their first VA appointment and an additional 64,000 never got an appointment after enrolling and requesting one, the audit found.
Gibson, while visiting the Fayetteville facility, also ordered the hospital to hire temporary staff to deal with the backlog. The hospital has expanded its hours and added a mobile unit to see patients.
But the biggest issue, explained Goolsby, is space.
“Nobody planned for 13 years of war,” she said, citing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Just last year alone, the Fayetteville enterprise added 9,000 new veterans to our rolls. That’s 9,000 hours just to see the new veterans last year.”
Veterans receive a one hour physical at their first visit, Goolsby said.
The hospital is building an additional 10,000 square feet of space in Fayetteville and 5,000 more square feet in Jacksonville to handle the additional patients, said Goolsby, who answered questions and took criticism during the forum.
“Last year we took care of 60,000 veterans. That was 725,000 patient visits,” she said. “I can assure you not one of those employees came to work to harm anyone. They came to take care of our veterans. And for someone to insinuate otherwise, you are mistaken.”
Each veteran who spoke detailed their experiences with the Fayetteville and Durham facilities, from not being able to access certain medications to fighting through red tape to get care and resorting to going to private hospitals for care. A few said they reached out to their congressman as a last resort in order to meet with Goolsby.
Will McCullum said he hasn’t heard from the Fayetteville facility since his motorized scooter became disabled last year, and after being told in January that he was losing his hearing, has yet to hear from his primary doctor.
“When am I going to be treated,” he asked.
Hugh Williams, a veteran with “mounds of disabilities,” said he hasn’t seen his primary care doctor in two years.
“It’s not the quality of care, it’s the system, the bureaucracy of trying to get them to get you in to see them, to have the prescriptions filled,” he said. “I’m a very patient person and still patient. Hopefully they will rectify the situation, get it right and take care of our veterans. We served, we paid our dues, now take care of us.”
The American Legion has opened a crisis center at Post 202 to help patients with their complaints. Operating hours are from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 8 a.m. to noon Friday. Post 202 is located at 834 Ramsey St., Fayetteville.