About 100 veterans and community members attended a June 16 American Legion System Worth Saving town hall meeting in Fayetteville, N.C., to discuss the quality of health care veterans receive from the local VA facility. (Photo by Marty Callaghan)

Vets air health-care complaints in Fayetteville

Troy Page thinks a widespread problem with Department of Veterans Affairs health care is that primary care physician turnover rates are too high. “One of the systemic problems I see with VA is what I’ve seen on active duty – your primary care provider always rotates out," said Page, a retired veteran. "You get new doctors in, they want to use their own meds, they want to redo all these tests. Everything is just redundant and a waste of time.”

Page was one of about 100 veterans and community members who attended a June 16 American Legion System Worth Saving town hall meeting, hosted by American Legion Post 202 in Fayetteville, N.C. The topic of discussion was the quality of health care veterans are receiving from the Fayetteville VA Medical Center.

“You’ve got 15 to 20 minutes with these (primary care doctors),” Page said. “And if you’ve got 10 or 12 problems, they don’t care.” Page said doctors usually address one health problem at a time due to short appointment times.

Suffering from back injuries and spine damage from his years in the service, Page said he gets all his pain management from another VA facility “because (Fayetteville) doesn’t provide the medications I need.”

Page thanked The American Legion for conducting the meeting. “I love ya, I had you from day one.” Pointing to Lakeisha Bracey, a national claims representative for the Legion, he said, “As a matter of fact, my record is sitting right back there. (Lakeisha) is like a sister to me. Every problem I’ve ever had, she’s taken care of. So if you don’t have a representative, you’d better get one because it really helps.”

VA’s online service for its enrollees, MyHealtheVet, works fine according to Page. “There’s a lot of things at VA that work – they do work. But like you said, the system is broken. If one person doesn’t want to do the job, it’s going to trickle, it’s going to hurt everybody.”

Elizabeth Goolsby, director of the Fayetteville VA Medical Center, attended the meeting and responded to Page’s comments. “What gets tricky is that if part of your care is in one place and part of your care is in another place, providers may differ in their opinions about how to manage certain aspects of care," she said. "Neither one of them is wrong; it’s just a difference of opinion. Because medicine is part art and part science. So some providers will not prescribe the same thing somebody else might, very legitimately.”

Goolsby’s answer to Page was one of many she gave to veterans and family members during a meeting that lasted nearly three hours.

Like many other VA medical centers, the Fayetteville facility has been challenged with providing veterans timely access to their health care. One veteran, Hugh Williams, told Goolsby that he hasn’t been able to get an appointment with his health-care provider since 2012. He finally got an appointment for May 23, only to have it cancelled on the 22nd. Another veteran claimed he called the medical center 10 times but never got a call back; he contacted a patient advocate who never followed up with him. Veteran Steven Bailey said it took four months to get an appointment with an audiologist.

Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, asked how many attendees had been waiting more than a year for their medical appointments. About a half-dozen people raised their hands.

A recent nationwide access audit by VA showed that about 8,100 veterans have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments at the Fayetteville facility. Of those, about 7,400 have been waiting 31 to 90 days and 672 have waited 91 to 120 days.

The Fayetteville VA Medical Center took care of 60,000 veterans last year, according to Goolsby. “That was 725,000 outpatient visits. I can assure you not one of those (VA) employees came to work to harm anyone. They came to take care of our veterans.”

Goolsby said over the past four years the Fayetteville center has increased both its primary and specialty care. Three cardiologists are now on board and funding has been received to start a medical oncology program at the hospital. “My goal is to have more of the specialties here so that our veterans do not have to go to Durham and other places," she said. "It’s going to take time to do that, and it’s going to take a lot of revamping of our facilities.”

As the meeting ended, Jones thanked Goolsby for attending the meeting. “I know you can look out here and see that these people are frustrated, and you can understand the frustrations," Jones said. "And we know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but people are hurting and it’s going to take all of us to fix the VA system, and that we help these veterans and restore their faith in the VA system.”

Crystalrenee Saunders is the adjutant for Post 202, which has about 390 members. A retired Army veteran, she said the town hall meeting was important to hold “because everybody has issues, or things that need to be taken care of … and this forum helps. Everybody gets their voice out, and then we can correct everything that needs to be corrected.”

The American Legion is operating a Veterans Command Crisis Center at Post 202 to help veterans and family members affected by long delays in receiving VA health care. Hours for the crisis center are: June 17, noon to 8 p.m.; 18th and 19th, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and 20th, 8 a.m. to noon.

Although she has yet to have a problem with VA health care, Saunders said quality of treatment has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. “I’ve been to places where the customer service wasn’t what it should be," she said. "Some of these people seem like they met the wrong person to take care of them. But that’s what this crisis center is for. We’re going to try to meet the needs of anyone who comes in. Hopefully these people won’t have to go through that again.”