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CBS4 Investigates: The Long Wait Inside The Miami VA

FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) -- Marc Schenker pointed to his thin right calf.   "It's wasted," he said. "That's nerve damage."

Schenker, an Air Force veteran who lives in Fort Lauderdale, said the problem stemmed from the chronic back pain he suffered. He knew he needed to see a neurologist so he requested an appointment through the Miami VA. It took almost eight months to get one. When he finally did see the doctor, she told him he needed spinal surgery and that he would be contacted about scheduling the operation.

"I got a notice in the mail that the back operation could be accomplished in about 14 months," he said. "So I was put on a waiting list. It wasn't doing me a lot of good. I was in a great deal of pain by then. So there was nothing I could do but take pain medication and to wait for it."

Watch Jim DeFede's report, click here.

But the 67-year-old said he was lucky - after eight months a surgical slot opened up and he was able to be operated on sooner. The surgery was a success.

"Nobody cares for its patients more than the VA if you get to the right people," he said. "It's getting to the right people."

Recently he was diagnosed with a golf-ball sized hernia. He again went back to the VA. This time it took him four months to get an appointment with a surgeon who confirmed the need for surgery. But before the operation could be scheduled he was required to see a VA urologist. He was told he would be contacted about an appointment.

"They said they would send a letter out," he recalled. "Three months later I never got a letter."

He called his surgeon's office. They apologized and said it would be taken care of immediately.

"Two months later no letter, no phone call, no nothing," he said. "I'm just sitting here in my home office waiting for this letter every day and it never came."

So Schenker said he did something he never thought he would do.

"I gave up," he said. "I gave up. I needed to have this taken care of and it just didn't seem like it was going to happen."

Schenker went to a private physician through Medicare and is now scheduled to have the surgery next week at Broward's Holy Cross Hospital.

"Any vet will tell you the process of getting to a doctor is unbelievably slow and inefficient," he said. "We don't expect to be treated special but the VA health system could be the greatest in the world if they could straighten out the management issues."

Those management issues are at the forefront of the national scandal surrounding the Department of Veteran Affairs. And Schenker's experience at the Miami VA is not unique.

An internal VA audit released Monday shows there are more than 57,000 new veterans across the country have been waiting more than 90 days for an appointment to see a doctor. In Florida the number is 8,500.

The specific numbers for South Florida VA centers were not released, but CBS4 News obtained information gathered during that audit that there were 769 new patients waiting more than 90 days for care.

There were 208 new veterans waiting to get into Audiology, 197 patients waiting for Dermatology, 96 waiting for a Primary Care physician, 89 waiting for Physical Rehabilitation, 67 waiting for Neurology and 25 for General Surgery.

The list only detailed new patients. Existing or established patients, like Schenker, are not included in these numbers, which means the number of veterans waiting more than 90 days for care is actually much higher.

Late Monday VA officials in Miami confirmed the information obtained by CBS4 News but said the numbers have steadily been coming down in the past two weeks as they initiate new plans to address the backlog. A May 28 email from the head of the Miami VA, Paul Russo, to his staff, appears to confirm the problem for new veterans.

In the memo, obtained by CBS4 News, Russo wrote: "All medical centers are actively identifying operational measures to improve and increase access to care for new and established patients. Though our access for established patients predominantly meets our access goals our access for new patients is much weaker."

He went on to write: "Our primary areas of concern due to workload demand are Audiology, Physical Medicine and Rehab, Dermatology, Neurology, Primary Care and General surgery."

And Russo wrote new plans were being put into place to deal with patients waiting more than 90 days for a doctor. "Any patient out past 90 days is being reviewed and contacted to provide sooner appointment access either internally or through non-VA care authorizations," he wrote.

He also noted they were approving more overtime and hiring additional staff.

"We must work together to ensure our Veterans get timely access to care," Russo concluded. "Let's make this happen."

The good news for the Miami VA is that it appears from the audit that it did not have a problem with clerks falsifying records. There were 112 VA hospitals and clinics that would require follow-up visits by inspectors – but neither the Miami nor West Palm Beach were among them.

So how many new patients are being seen by a doctor within the 14 day standard set by the VA?

The Miami VA did provide to CBS4 News a breakdown of new patients.

In the area of Primary Care Medicine there were 3,478 new patients who entered the VA since October but only 1,376 of them, or approximately 40 percent, were seen within 14 days.

For the Mental Health Clinic there were 1,841 new patients with 1,139 of them, or 62 percent, seen at the clinic within 14 days.

For Psychiatry there were 756 new patients requesting appointments with 668 of them, or 88 percent, receiving one within 14 days.

For Psychology there were 331 new patients with 291 of them, or 88 percent, receiving an appointment within 14 days

For Substance Abuse Disorder there were 225 new patients requesting an appointment with 150 of them, or 67 percent, receiving an appointment within 14 days.

And for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder counseling there were 328 new patients at the VA since October with 223 of them, or 68 percent, receiving an appointment within 14 days.

When you look at the totals for all of the areas it shows that the Miami VA has only been able to provide care within 14 days to a little more than half - or about 58 percent - of the new patients they have seen since October.

Members of Congress have begun to question whether this 14 day standard the VA set for itself is both unrealistic and causing administrators and scheduling clerks to manipulate information in order to qualify for bonuses or other benefits. And in blurring or distorting the number of patients actually being seen the actual needs of the VA - and veterans like Schenker - have been lost.

Schenker hopes something is done to fix the problems. He believes hiring more doctors and staff is the first step.

"They are overwhelmed with veterans, more and more and more, because of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars," he said.  "If they could attract enough doctors I think the system would be more efficient. I think it would ripple down the line, where if more doctors were available, and more doctors see less patients than 40 patients a day for God Sake, I think the system could fix itself."

He credits the VA with saving his life when doctors performed heart surgery on him several years ago.

"If you ask the average veteran they will praise the VA because eventually they get taken care of," he said. "But veterans today who have ailments suffer longer than they should and that's really the bottom line."



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