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Shawn Vestal: Veterans frustrated with wait times at Spokane VA hospital

Rex Miller, a retired Air Force master sergeant, has found himself frustrated beyond belief by the troubles he has had getting seen by a pulmonologist for his increasing problems breathing. On a table in his Greenacres home are his medications. (Dan Pelle)

Rex Miller’s problems getting in to see a pulmonologist have left him frustrated.

Miller is a retired Air Force master sergeant with a 70 percent disability. Part of that is associated with pulmonary disease, and he’s been receiving treatment for his breathing problems and other symptoms for several years. When the effectiveness of his prescription medications began to wane in February – making it harder for him to walk and bringing the return of asthma symptoms – he went to see a primary care doctor at the Spokane VA hospital, who recommended that he see a pulmonologist, he says. VA standards call for a 30-day wait in such instances.

An X-ray, a pulmonology test, two emergency room visits, a “nonvisit consultation,” and several conversations and emails later, Miller says he has given up on seeing a pulmonologist at the Mann-Grandstaff Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He wrote to Sen. Patty Murray’s office but says he isn’t holding his breath. He’s moving to Montana anyway, he says, and will try his luck there.

“After going on 4 months waiting for help that is what I expect as a veteran – NOTHING,” Miller wrote in an email. “Nothing from the Spokane VA or anyone else.”

Miller got in touch with me after reading a column Saturday about problems at the local VA hospital. He was reading it while sitting in the waiting room. He was one of many vets who have contacted the newspaper to talk about their experiences with the agency. Many of them describe frustration and anger surrounding waits for service like Miller’s, stories that are nothing new to anyone who has paid attention to the VA system but which are being unearthed in dramatic numbers in the wake of the emerging scandal over wait times and the apparent efforts to hide them at hospitals around the country. These stories are the veterans’ own accounts of their experiences, and were not verified through seeking the release of their records.

But several veterans interviewed this week have also noted that the care is often very good once they get in. Many praise the doctors, nurses and staffers who work in the hospitals, saying they are so understaffed they cannot keep up.

“The nurses and doctors have so many patients they’re overwhelmed,” said Brad Rafford, a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran of the Navy who has been receiving VA care in Spokane for nine years.

Rafford said that it’s important for people to understand the distinction between the major types of service: outpatient, inpatient and emergency. Rafford said inpatient care is often excellent; he was hospitalized in December for complications arising from his pancreatitis and said, “I really felt cared for.”

Not long ago he broke his toe and had to visit urgent care, where he was pleased with the treatment but not the nearly daylong wait. And he said arranging office visits and other outpatient care is a battle; he said doctors, nurses and staffers are doing their best but can’t keep up.

Brent Wilson is appreciative for much of the care he’s received through the VA. A 66-year-old Vietnam-era veteran who served as an Army intelligence specialist, he said he had a physical with a general practitioner about a year ago, and he was pleased with the care he received then – a follow-up check on a stent he’d had placed in his heart after a heart attack and a diagnosis identifying his cholesterol medicine as the source of back and joint pain. But he says that problems of scheduling and communication between the primary care doctors and specialty services continue; he’s been waiting since that physical for a colonoscopy appointment.

Wilson said he has had a difficult time even finding out how long he might expect to wait. And yet he feels a sense of camaraderie and shared sacrifice with his fellow veterans, and says that he does not necessarily mind waiting if it means that those with more pressing problems are being seen first.

“I am not a veteran who has a lot of problems,” he said. “I’m a veteran who’s very thankful for what I have been able to get, but I don’t want to bump out or take the place of somebody who has paid a higher price.”

Like many others, Wilson said he is concerned that bonuses offered to administrators for appearing to meet wait-time goals may provide an incentive to shortchange the veterans. He also believes that if the VA were a military department, as opposed to an independent agency, it might be more efficient.

David White was having trouble getting an appointment to have his enlarged prostate checked. A 60-year-old Vietnam-era vet, White said he was told that if he couldn’t get in to see a doctor, he should go to urgent care. He said he would do that and wait for hours; eventually, in 2010, he decided to go to Rockwood Clinic, where he got in quickly, he said.

“They called me the next day and said, ‘Looks like you have prostate cancer,’ ” he said.

He ended up paying $3,500 out of pocket, taken from his monthly disability income of $1,100.

“It took me two years to pay that thing off,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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