ELKHART — George Morehouse, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, maintains a generally favorable view of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Most of the time it’s good," he said.
Still, setting up an appointment with a VA doctor can take time, and dealing with the bureaucracy of the agency at times requires patience. "It’s pretty much an overwhelmed system,” said Morehouse, a trustee with the Elkhart Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 88.
In the wake of last week’s resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and the uproar over delays in getting medical attention, Elkhart County veterans report issues of their own. Those contacted by the Elkhart Truth don’t report life-or-death delays, as at a facility in Phoenix where veterans on waiting lists reportedly died while awaiting care. But things don’t always run as smoothly as they should, and there can be hiccups for veterans seeking care — a common lament, apparently.
"I know I hear them talking all the time about how long it takes to get in sometimes," said Bill Fletcher, who served in the U.S. Army and now helps out as assistant treasurer at the Elkhart Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 19.
The Elkhart County Veterans’ Service Office helps out 15,000 veterans, offering an inkling of the overall number of local veterans. In interviews this week with a handful of them on the controversy impacting the VA, here are a few takeaways:
- Those seeking appointments with a medical specialist sometimes face waits of up to several months in getting attention, but not in life-or-death situations.
- Once an appointment is set, there may be long waits in the waiting room, generally at larger VA facilities in Fort Wayne, Marion and Indianapolis. Attention is typically more prompt at contractor-run VA clinics in Goshen and South Bend, which offer more basic services.
- Shinseki was doing a good job and the problems in the VA are likely attributable to more mid-ranged VA managers.
LONG WAITS, TRAVEL TIME
First off, Bill Cawley, who served in the U.S. Army, wants it to be known that he holds VA medical experts in esteem. "They do the best they can. They try real hard," he said.
But the VFW Post 88 quartermaster laments the travel that’s sometimes necessary to get care. If he needs to see two experts, he may have to make two trips in succession rather than one, given availability of specialists. That’s more time spent on the road and more expense for the VA, since veterans are compensated for travel to facilities.
The local facilities, in Goshen and South Bend, operate “a lot smoother” than larger facilities, but they don’t have as many offerings.
"When they schedule you to go to Fort Wayne or Marion or somewhere with a specialist, that’s when you start running into problems," he said, citing the times he’s had to wait three, four or five months for an appointment.
For Charles Harrell, who served in the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1972, the issue is the time spent in the waiting room to see a doctor, typically at larger facilities. He’s arrived for an appointment early in the morning only to face a wait until noon — or later.
"You can get there at seven o’clock in the morning and you can be there all day before you get out,” he said from the Goshen VFW, Post 985.
On the flip side, Adam Bujalski, a U.S. Army veteran and Goshen bank manager, was upbeat. “If I need an appointment, basically I can get it the same week,” said Bujalski, who vied, unsuccessfully, in the May primary for the District 48 Indiana House seat, touting veterans’ concerns as a priority.
And Harrell, who has more good to say than bad, is careful to offer praise where praise is deserved.
He once went into the Goshen VA clinic feeling light-headed and lacking energy. A nurse practitioner who had gone home for the day returned to assist, given the apparent gravity of Harrell’s condition. He was diagnosed with a heart ailment and within 24 hours, he was in a hospital getting a needed pacemaker.
CARE QUALITY IS GREAT IN INDIANA
Here are a few more views:
Terry Scherer of Elkhart, who served in the U.S. Army from 1971 to 1972, noted, with some dismay, having to go to a VA facility in Dayton, Ohio, to get treatment for an abscessed tooth, another example of the travel sometimes required for VA care. “It was a relief when I got there, but it was so long,” he said from the VFW post in Elkhart.
The sorts of things that apparently happened at the Phoenix clinic aren’t issues here, according to Bill Bottom, who served in the U.S. Army in the 1960s and now acts as service master at the Elkhart VFW post. “I think it’s isolated, I don’t think it’s in Indiana at all ... The quality is great in the state,” he said.
Bottom, like others, also heaped praise on Shinseki.
Shinseki “was probably the best coordinator we’ve had for the VA for many, many years,” he said, noting his moves to reduce the backlog of VA medical cases. “I think he can be a hard man to replace.”