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Witness Testimony of Mary C. Jones, Licking County Veterans’ Service Commission, Licking County Veterans' Service Officer, Newark, OH

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to testify regarding the important issue of outpatient waiting times.

I have worked as a County Veterans Service Officer for the past twelve years and in that capacity have had an opportunity to enjoy a great relationship with the staff at both the Columbus VA Outpatient Clinic and the Newark Community Based Outpatient Clinic and feel privileged to be able to have this relationship. I use the VA Healthcare system as my primary provider of medical care for my service-connected conditions.  My concern with outpatient waiting times is our inability to get veterans into an appointment in a timely manner. Their appointments are scheduled so far out (often two to three months) that their condition worsens and they are left angry and frustrated at a system that is supposed to be in place to care for those who have given so much to our great Nation.

As examples of the problems created by these wait times I offer to you some experiences from our office. We see many veterans shortly after their return home. They have been promised dental care within ninety days from their discharge. One veteran’s first available appointment was scheduled for almost ninety days from the date of request. When he got to the dental clinic he was told that his appointment needed to be cancelled and re-scheduled. They did not have any appointments available within the ninety day period that he was entitled to dental care and therefore he was not seen.

Female veterans have unique healthcare concerns and face difficult wait times to be seen by gynecologists – often as long as six to eight months. Please keep in mind that most of the women that we are working with do not have other viable options for healthcare. Many are war time veterans on a non-service connected pension and are therefore very low income. They are unable to get Medicaid treatment for preventative or diagnostic medical care. Pap tests and mammograms are increasingly important as we get older and are often life saving diagnostic tools, but waiting as long as six months for the initial exam and then often even longer to get the test scheduled can lead to greater problems if a cancer exists.

I mentioned earlier that I am a service connected veteran and that I use the VA Outpatient Clinic myself. I was having health concerns and tried to schedule an appointment with my physician and was told the earliest appointment I could get was in six months. Because I am a county employee and have medical insurance through my employment, I was able to see a doctor outside of the VA system within three weeks and ended up needing major medication changes and a heart catheterization. I hate to think what would have happened to the veteran who had no other options. 

We are now filing many claims for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Usually when we file a claim we have a veteran who has a diagnosis for a condition, but PTSD is different. Most veterans can get into the VA to see a social worker and can get assigned to group counseling fairly quickly. Most can see a psychiatrist within three to four months for an initial exam, but within the twelve to eighteen months that a service connected claim takes to adjudicate, the veteran is still left without a diagnosis for PTSD because the wait times prohibit the doctor from seeing the patient often enough to provide a definitive diagnosis of any mental health issue.  Because no diagnosis exists, the VBA must deny the claim for service connection. Seeing private psychologists and psychiatrists are beyond the financial reach of most veterans.

My most memorable experience is a WWII veteran who was in receipt of a non-service connected pension. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer through a PSA test done by his primary care physician. Treatment was scheduled, but the wait time was several months. In the meantime this gentle man very clearly understood that he would not survive due to the fact that his cancer had spread and was continuing to spread during this wait. The treatment would only have prolonged his life and probably not saved his life, but this would have been an excellent opportunity to send a positive message of support from the government to this WWII veteran, and that opportunity was missed. He died before his appointment with an oncologist.

This has been an honor for me to have an opportunity to bring examples of the difficulties experienced by the veterans that I serve caused by the long wait times to be seen at the clinics.  I did not come to criticize the VA, because the care given by our outpatient clinic is excellent, but at this time that care comes at a price and that price is patience.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony.