Earle Ford resorted to his backup plan Tuesday.
He went to Myrtle Beach’s Veterans Affairs clinic.
“Every time I come in here, it’s like jam packed,” the 28-year-old said. “The only reason I’m here is because I just got to the area and my primary care doctor won’t see me for another month.”
Unbeknownst to the Army veteran, minutes before he arrived, a group of VA officials and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, were talking about the experiences of veterans like him.
Rice told the group that his office had received numerous complaints about VA service.
“I don’t think there’s any other demographic in my constituency that is as frustrated,” he said of veterans.
Although the conversation grew testy at times, both the congressman and VA officials agreed veterans services should be improved. Where they differed was the solution.
VA officials want to fix the current system. Rice would rather see the private sector handle more of veterans’ health care.
“You and I agree on a lot of this,” the congressman said. “But I just don’t think the bureaucracy is the environment to accomplish what you’re talking about.”
Rice told the group he’d heard a health care CEO say private sector physicians on average make patients wait a few days for an appointment while the VA takes nearly two months.
VA officials seemed incredulous about those times. They said they try to schedule non-emergency visits within 30 days, though they acknowledged it sometimes takes longer to see a specialist. However, they insist the hurdles they face are not unique.
“Healthcare’s complex everywhere you go,” said Scott Isaacks, director of Charleston’s Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, the network that includes the Myrtle Beach clinic. “It’s not just the VA that has the bureaucracy.”
Dr. Johann Herberth, who has worked in both private practice and with the VA, said the federal agency has programs in place to follow-up with veterans who have sought service, including making follow-up calls and sending a letter.
“Is this work intensive? You bet,” he said. “But I think it’s also something that is welcomed by our veterans frequently, that the health care is coming to them and that they are not just going to health care.”
Isaacks did concede that the VA’s scheduling system is outdated. He also said the government’s policies for leasing space and constructing buildings are burdensome, noting that a key Myrtle Beach VA addition has been on the to-do list for years because of numerous regulations.
“How do we solve that?” Rice asked. “That is a classic example of the problem of government bureaucracy. How do we solve that issue? Why does it take eight years to build a building?”
Despite Rice’s questions, VA staffers explained that many veterans prefer coming to their facilities because they know they will be surrounded by their peers.
“They like coming here,” said BJ Farmer, administrative officer for the Myrtle Beach location. “They like talking to other veterans. … It’s a community.”
Myrtle Beach staffers said traveling veterans sometimes get upset with the facility when they realize it doesn’t offer the same services, such as a pharmacy, that larger VA sites do.
“They think of us as more of a medical center,” said Sharon Bouchard, nurse manager at the Myrtle Beach location. “That can create some frustration.”
However, local officials say most concerns are quickly eased.
“A lot of them, they just don’t understand how the process is,” Farmer said. “When I get them in the office and I can explain what the process is, they leave either hugging me or shaking my hand.”
When Isaacks heard about the complaints from Rice’s office, he seemed surprised. He said other VA locations in the region aren’t having the same problems.
“I’m a little taken aback,” he said. “This is the only time that I’ve heard that the comments are as negative as you’re saying they are.”
Rice asked the director if his office had any issues with staff falsifying records – a problem at some other VA locations across the country – and Isaacks said numerous reviews hadn’t found that to be the case.
Overall, he said, the Charleston-based system does well.
“We’re providing good care,” Isaacks said. “We need to a better job locally with trying to explain how to navigate the system. And then nationally there’s absolutely some things that can be done.”
In Ford’s case, he’d like to see the transition from serviceman to VA patient simplified.
He recently received his medical discharge after serving three years. He injured both shoulders during training jumps with his airborne unit and is preparing for surgery at the VA hospital in Charleston.
Ford’s treatment was progressing normally while he was in the Army, but when he was discharged and went to the VA, things changed. He was told to undergo another battery of tests, the same ones he’d just gone through in the military.
“The second I left, I just had to restart everything,” he said.
Despite the challenges, he was pleased that a doctor could see him Tuesday. And he appreciates the VA. He just knows the system could be better.
“It’s supposed to be a seamless transition,” he said. “But there’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through. … Nothing about it was seamless.”