WRAL Investigates

Local veterans voice frustration with VA

Posted November 10, 2014 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated November 25, 2014 10:30 a.m. EST

— Three local veterans who have decades of service between them, including silver stars, bronze stars and service awards, say they have one other thing in common – they are all frustrated with the VA.

“This is the greatest country in the world, and look at what we’re doing to our vets,” said Veronica Bailey, who served 20 years of active duty.

Bailey says changing veteran care is about more than just adding more clinics and more doctors. It's about truly caring for those who risked their lives for their country.

Veterans’ health care went under the spotlight earlier this year when vets died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA. The government promised changes, but statistics obtained by WRAL Investigates show things are not getting better.

In May, only 74 percent of Fayetteville VA appointments were scheduled within 30 days, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In September, 73 percent of vets got an appointment in less than a month. The Fayetteville VA has the worst percentage in the country.

In Durham, 13 percent of patients had to wait at least a month for an appointment, according to September's statistics. While unacceptable, it's still better than the Fayetteville VA's 27 percent.

Veteran Bruce Dockum was injured on the USS Yorktown off the Vietnamese coast when 500 pounds of metal fell on him. After years of getting morphine pills to reduce the pain, a VA doctor suddenly told Dockum his medical record showed no history of morphine pills, though Dockum had the bottles to prove it. Dockum has been to several VA facilities, including the Durham VA.

“My back’s a problem. I suffer day (and) night walking. I have grandkids I can’t even pick up because it hurts,” he said, tearing up. “I have a private doctor that I go through now to get my pills that I pay for out of my pocket and everything. It’s not fair.”

Ed Bailey also served in Vietnam. He was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal with a silver star and two bronze stars. But with those honors for serving his country came the medical problems – post-traumatic stress disorder and leukemia, which a private doctor said is likely connected to Agent Orange, an herbicide the U.S. military sprayed on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War.

Bailey waited at least eight years for the VA to make the connection, but he says he never heard a thing. When Bailey went to the Fayetteville VA to get treatment, he encountered another nightmare.

“I found out they didn’t have a doctor there at the time – a cancer doctor,” he said.

Bailey also had teeth extracted in September 2013, and he's still waiting for dental implants that fit properly.

Waiting is a major problem at the Fayetteville VA, and not just for established patients. New patients wait 83 days for a primary care appointment, 53 days for specialty care and 33 days for mental health. All three wait times are among the highest in the country.

Elizabeth Goolsby, director of the VA Medical Center in Fayetteville, recently opened a new VA clinic on Breezewood Drive and staffed it with three primary care teams to help ease wait times to see doctors. She admits that building new clinics and getting more doctors to see patients will take time and Congressional funding.

“We are seeing a disproportionate growth of the number of veterans,” she said. “The cycle for determining a need, getting Congress to approve the budget for it, going through the design process, the building process, takes a number of years.”

Goolsby says she wants to hear from veterans about their problems. She's holding another town hall meeting on Dec. 19 in the hospital's auditorium at 3 and 6 p.m.

Despite the tears and anger, all three of the local veterans say they'd enlist again to fight for the country. They just wish the country would do the same for them.

“It’s a shame we have to fight for our medicine, for his dental work,” Dockum said. “It’s a shame we have to fight for everything we get. We’ve already done our fighting. I’m 68 years old Dec. 1. How long do I have to keep fighting?”

Wait times for all patients by North Carolina VA hospital

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Editor's note: This data represents the last two weeks of September 2014 and includes every scheduled appointment at that facility except surgery and procedures. Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs