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Some veterans wait six months for care

WASHINGTON -- Veterans are waiting up to six months or more for medical care as a severely overburdened Veterans Affairs health system fails to keep pace with the growing demand, a report to be presented today to Congress concludes.

WASHINGTON -- Veterans are waiting up to six months or more for medical care as a severely overburdened Veterans Affairs health system fails to keep pace with the growing demand, a report to be presented today to Congress concludes.

An estimated 110,000 veterans are waiting for initial appointments for nonservice-related medical problems at hundreds of VA centers around the United States, the VA acknowledges.

"Washington, D.C., operates on a mentality of statistics," said American Legion national commander Ronald Conley, the report's author. "We wanted to make everybody aware that these are not just numbers, but are actual, real people and they're sick and they need to see a doctor and they can't wait."

Conley is scheduled to testify today before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Fargo's Veterans Affairs Medical Center doesn't have a problem meeting patients' needs, public affairs officer Peggy Wheelden said Monday.


"We're fortunate in Fargo because we don't have a waiting list like that," Wheelden said.

New patients at the Fargo hospital wait about 35 days for an initial appointment. The hospital keeps slots open for patients who need urgent care, Wheelden said.

The VA expects to see 4.7 million veterans in its hospitals and clinics this year, up more than 54 percent from 1996.

The rising cost of private health insurance and prescription drugs have led more veterans to rely on VA medical care. About 7 million of the nation's 25 million veterans, or 28 percent, are receiving VA medical benefits.

"A lot of people who may have been able to afford health insurance in the past are finding it difficult to afford it," said David Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans. "They are turning to VA, where they feel their country should take care of them."

Dr. Robert Roswell, VA undersecretary for health, said he also attributes the influx of patients to new VA community clinics and improvements in the quality of care.

The waiting list for appointments had been considerably longer, he added, with 315,000 veterans on it just last summer.

President Bush's 2004 budget allots $27 billion for VA health care, an increase of 7.7 percent from last year, Roswell said.


"We're quite pleased with the support the president has shown," he said, but the funds are still not enough to "keep pace with truly phenomenal growth."

The American Legion's Conley visited 60 VA medical facilities over 10 months, talking to hospital directors, doctors, nurses and patients to assess how well the system meets patient demand. The 162 hospitals, 850 clinics and 137 nursing homes that constitute the nation's largest managed-care system are chronically underfunded, his report concluded.

The VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System, one of the largest in the country with 12 outpatient clinics and an operating budget of nearly $500 million, was not included in the report and a spokesman there declined to comment.

Veterans' groups are calling for a change in the way VA health care is funded, so that it would receive a guaranteed stream of income much like Medicare already does. Currently, each year's VA spending must be set by Congress, making it subject to the constraints of the overall federal budget. Such unpredictability makes it difficult for hospitals and other facilities to operate, Conley said.

In 1996 Congress relaxed eligibility requirements for VA health care, allowing more veterans to enroll. A generous prescription benefit is one reason that many have. The VA offers a 30-day supply of each medication for a $7 co-payment.

The president's budget includes provisions to increase the co-payment to $15 for higher-income veterans and eliminate it for those with lower incomes. The budget also proposes a $250 enrollment fee for higher-income veterans.

While this "would reduce the number of people enrolled in VA health care, we believe it would act to shift health care to those who (need it the most)," Roswell said.

An American Legion survey last year of about 4,000 veterans found the average wait for an appointment is seven months and 58 percent had appointments rescheduled, many for several months later.


"All I did was put in 20 years of separations, hardships, sacrifices," wrote one survey responder, Robert Thomas, who served in Korea and Vietnam in the Navy. "The thanks I received is to ... be told that it will be another year before I see my first VA doctor."

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