Suncoast veterans concerned over VA appointment delays

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SARASOTA, Fla. --- The VA health care system is under fire again. A just-released audit reveals further delays for veterans trying to obtain their first VA medical appointment.

The internal audit released Monday paints a picture of widespread problems at VA health care facilities, and concerns are reverberating here on the Suncoast.

“It's troubling, and I'll tell you why it's troubling. I looked at the audit for VISN 8,” says retired Army Lieutenant Lee Kichen. VISN 8, also known as the VA Sunshine Health Care Network, is the nation's largest system of hospitals and clinics, serving 1.6 million veterans in most of Florida and parts of south Georgia, Peurto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Six facilities were flagged for further review. “Two of those facilities are right here, Sarasota...Bay Pines.”

VHA had more than 6 million nationwide appointments scheduled across the system in May; now there are more than 57,000 veterans waiting to be scheduled for care.

Kichen says there may be a number of reasons for delays, and he is concerned. “It could be the result of administrative problems, it could be the result of misconduct.”

Matt Erny, commander of VFW Post 32-33 in Sarasota, already enrolled in the system. He says it takes care of him. “I just had a lung taken out in December, and they found a spot on my lung and it was within two and a half weeks I was in the hospital.”

Vietnam veteran Bob Cockroft goes to the VA center on Route 64 in Bradenton and says he has not had a bad experience, but has heard of delays in Sarasota, one of the audits flagged facilities. “I've heard of some complaints, of not being able to get in.”

But retired 3rd Class Petty Officer William McNulty says it took only a couple of weeks for his transfer of medical coverage from Pennsylvania to Sarasota to kick in. “They set me up for a scheduled appointment for a physical.”

He was seen shortly thereafter, but McNulty's already in the system, and not one of the more than 63,000 who over the past ten years have enrolled in the VA health care system and have not been seen for an appointment. “There's the human element, when a veteran enrolls in the system there has to be a human being between the enrollment paper work and the computer system.”

Kichen says this initial audit brings attention to a problem that needs fixing. “There's a necessity for the VA clinic to schedule the appointment. There's no such thing as a centralized scheduling system.”