(Photo by Noel St. John)

Baltimore vets weigh in on VA health care

Local veterans at a July 28 American Legion System Worth Saving town hall meeting in Baltimore painted a tale of two medical facilities as they commented on their experiences with the Department of Veterans Affairs health-care system.

About 70 people gathered at American Legion Post 109 in Arbutus, Md., to voice their complaints and praises. Attendees included Legion post and department officers, VA officials, and a representative of Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland.

While most VA enrollees seemed satisfied with their treatment at the Loch Raven VA Outpatient Clinic, few of them were impressed by service they received at the Baltimore VA Medical Center (commonly called "Greene Street," where it is located).

A veteran who has been getting VA medical care for about 12 years at both the Greene Street and Loch Raven facilities said, "It’s night and day between the two. Loch Raven is so much better organized than Greene Street. The wait time is nil over at Loch Raven, but at Greene Street, you’d better bring a lunch. The wait time down there is horrible." The veteran said had to wait about five months for an appointment to get a biopsy.

One veteran complained that when he had to cancel a July 25 appointment he was rescheduled for Oct. 10. Another patient claimed that whenever he arrived at the Greene Street facility for an appointment, he waited for hours.  

"There are a lot of problems at VA, like any other place, but not everything down there is bad," a veteran said. "I go to the women’s clinic and it’s wonderful. The care there is fantastic. You don’t have to wait for appointments, and they’re always checking up on you. For the most part, there are doctors and nurses (at the medical center) that really do care."

A patient getting his medical care from Loch Raven agreed with several others at the meeting that the medical care there was excellent. "The only trouble is, I’m afraid to say how good Loch Raven is because everybody will be at Loch Raven," he said. "Not everything is wrong" at the Greene Street facility, but it is "like going to Penn Station when five trains arrive, along with attitude. Loch Raven is like going to church, the atmosphere is quiet, they’re prompt, they’re courteous and are effective and business-like."

Another veteran, a nurse who served in the Army and retired from the VA, had positive things to say about VA health-care quality in Baltimore. She worked for 21 years at seven different VA facilities and received "fabulous treatment at both Greene Street and at Loch Raven," she said. "It was better than I got at the local (private) hospital."

The VA’s specialty care clinics are exceptional, one veteran said, "when you finally get to see them. The problem is at the clerk and attendant level – sometimes communication gets lost in the system."

The American Legion is setting up a Veterans Crisis Command Center this week at Post 109 with help from VA staff, Legion volunteers, the American Red Cross and other organizations. Services provided to veterans and family members include assistance with VA appointment scheduling, grief counseling, benefits claims, and help with enrollment in VA health care.

"Our partnership with the VA at these crisis centers has been really important," said Verna Jones, who moderated the meeting and director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division.

Jones told the attendees that the Legion has operated crisis centers for veterans across the country where a few thousand veterans and family members have "received some great assistance," she said. "If you need some help, if you have questions or concerns, if you want to come in and just see what you may be entitled to, come down to the crisis center – and tell other people."

Operating hours for the Post 109 crisis center in Arbutus are noon to 8 p.m. on July 29, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the 30th, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the 31st, and 8 a.m. to noon on Aug. 1.

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