Customer service issues and discussions about the difficulty of making appointments dominated a town hall meeting hosted by Veterans Affairs to hear and respond to veterans’ complaints.
The Wednesday-morning meeting at the Biloxi VA Medical Center attracted more than 50 veterans and family members, and about a dozen people spoke. Dozens more crowded into a back room for one-on-one consultations with representatives from the Biloxi VA, Jackson Regional Office and Biloxi National Cemetery.
The complaints ranged from the overarching to the specific, but most centered on the same themes: Difficulty getting primary-care appointments; the feeling primary-care physicians didn’t dedicate enough attention to them during appointments; and rudeness from the customer-service desk when attempting to transfer into the Biloxi system from a different VA system.
“It was the most horrible experience I’ve had in my decade plus with the VA,” Air Force veteran Pierre Desjardins said. “I’ve literally contemplated driving 10 hours back to Tampa Bay because I’m scared to death of what’s going on here. ... I’m scared to death about my health care.”
Desjardins said he had been thrilled with his care at the Tampa-area VA, where he’d been treated for a number of conditions, including kidney cancer. When he was diagnosed in 2011 it was at stage IV — terminal. But the treatment was a success and earlier this year he moved to Biloxi. The problems started when he went to check in, he said, and was greeted rudely, almost aggressively.
Then he had to wait three months for his first appointment. At his first appointment, he said, the physician didn’t run any tests despite recent weight loss and his history with cancer. It took five months to get an appointment for medical labs, Desjardins said, and he still has no idea where to go for medical questions or concerns. He has no primary physician to turn to.
That issue — trouble getting a first appointment and trouble getting assigned to a single primary-care physician — was echoed by many other speakers. Several others also said they’d had far better service at other VA systems.
Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System Director Anthony Dawson said the issue was largely one of staffing. The Gulf Coast VA had about 1 million patient encounters in 2015. And they’ve been short-staffed.
“I think you heard today the veterans enjoy the care they do get,” Dawson said. “The challenge is getting in to get care. The overall theme of today is veterans feeling they don’t have a primary-care physician assigned to them.”
Dawson said he has been working to hire physicians, nurses and other staffers. He hopes to have the shortages eliminated and each veteran in the system assigned a primary-care physician by the end of the year.
A new veterans-experience executive, and a soon-to-be-established veterans-experience board, will provide another way for veterans to have their voices heard, Dawson said.
To an incredulous question about a doctor seeing 14 patients a day, Dawson said 14 appointments of 30 minutes each added up to seven hours — within a standard workday.
Jill Sharrow was also at the meeting, representing her husband, David, a retired Marine who suffers from PTSD and heart issues from his service in Vietnam. She also spoke about problems making appointments and getting needed services.
“He’s given his life for his country and his country can’t give him 30 minutes?” she said. “It’s not right.”
Despite the complaints, most speakers also praised specific doctors or patient advocates they had seen.
The town hall was the latest of a series of such public discussions aimed at allowing veterans to make their voices heard and restoring trust in a VA system that two years ago was battered by a scandal involving medical-appointment wait times. The complaints voiced Wednesday largely mirrored what’s been said at previous town halls.
Dawson seemed to almost anticipate that when, in his opening remarks, he said, “Transition is a marathon. It’s definitely not a sprint. In a large organization such as ours, it takes years to turn things around.”
Then he quoted VA Secretary Bob McDonald: “The idea that the VA can’t be fixed, or that we’re not fixing it, is just nonsense. We are fixing it. We’re just not finished yet.”