Lebanon VA tries to fight perception that all VAs are bad
witf.org, | 06.19.14
Lebanon VA Medical Center
For years, the issue of administrative backlogs and sub-standard care at certain VA Medical Centers has surfaced. Lately, though, the stories have intensified. At least 40 veterans died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA in Arizona. The VA Secretary resigned. Congressmen called hearings. And in Pittsburgh, the director of the VA is on paid administrative leave over a Legionnaire’s outbreak that infected at least 22. In Lebanon, the story is different in many ways, but the sensitivity around the issue is the same
Photo by Ben Allen/witf
This VA has an expansive campus in Lebanon. Everywhere you look, there’s construction.
New buildings for those recovering.
A more welcoming entrance is on the way.
And expect a new surgical center to open this fall.
"It's not that we’re trying to emulate the community, or the community's trying to emulate us. We're all giving good care. And so that’s why we needed to upgrade the buildings, so that we had the space to do that. Our equipment is bigger than it used to be," says Peggy Wilson, associate director for patient care services at the Lebanon VA.
The workload for primary care physicians is capped at 1,100 patients, and Dr. Carl Reese, associate chief of staff for surgery, says there’s actually room for more patients in his department. The new surgery center includes 16 private rooms, instead of one shared room for those waiting for surgery. At this VA, wait times are no different than private providers, says Dr. Reese.
"Some, 6 weeks you might wait that long on the outside. Again, that's speculation on my time. As a matter of fact, I happened to know on the outside, the wait times are longer than some of the veterans we see here."
Reese came from Penn State Hershey Medical Center, so he can speak from experience with private care. Through WITF’s Public Insight Network, I asked other veterans for details on how the VA has treated them. At least three fourths said they had no problems, and would recommend it to anyone. Brian Mummau served two tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and says everything is straightforward.
Photo by Ben Allen/witf
"Initially it started out as annual physical. From there, I ended up diagnosed with ended up with high cholesterol. I do get treatment for that, they monitor my cholesterol, things like that. I also go in and speak with a counselor once a month," says Mummau.
In talking with close to a dozen veterans from wars going back to Korea, most said once they were in the VA system, they had no complaints. There were some who took issue.
"When you’re requesting routine procedures, it’s not a problem, it's not too big of a deal."
This is someone who works with the Pennsylvania National Guard, and served at Tallil Air Base in Iraq. He didn’t want to be identified because of his current job. He had no complaints until recently, when he tore his rotator cuff.
But when you’re in significant pain, which my shoulder did cause a lot of times. It was pain that would be distracting so much that you couldn't do anything but deal with the pain. It's extremely frustrating when you have to just live with that much of pain, 4 weeks to 6 weeks to get in to see somebody to possibly get it fixed."
He says it took weeks to get an appointment at the Lebanon VA, and he resorted to over the counter pain killers. It’s not clear how prevalent cases like this are, or how the wait time in Lebanon might compare to private facilities in the midstate like Pinnacle, Wellspan, or Penn State Hershey. Doug Etter, the Lebanon VA spokesperson, says he can’t address specific cases.
Photo by Ben Allen/witf
"I think that calls for speculation and we’re not in that business. We want to give you facts, and that's what our world consists of: transparency and facts. So for us to guess why someone has difficulty entering the system, we simply can't do that. I can speak for myself, I had no trouble getting into the system as an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran with two tours of Iraq."
It doesn’t appear the Lebanon VA is caught up in any of the major issues highlighted by the VA Inspector General. It was flagged for another look after an audit by the VA, but Etter says that was because of an unofficial cardiology appointment list that has now been incorporated with the official list.
What is clear is there is a lot of concern about how the VA is portrayed.
A question about the national controversy was asked, and first rebuffed by Lebanon VA spokesperson Doug Etter. A second time, he responded.
"Its increasing the blood pressure of some of our veterans. Because they are very upset, and I get copies of letters daily from veterans who say I just sent this to the Secretary of VA. I want them to know while there may be other issues and other problems at other places, the Lebanon VA Medical Center gives me the best care ever."
Every VA facility is different, just like no two private hospitals are the same. No one raised any questions about with medical care at the Lebanon VA. The issues seemed to fall on the administrative side, and local staff say that’s out of their control. Congress just passed legislation funding more VAs, giving the VA Secretary the power to fire employees, and allowing some vets to go outside the VA system for care. Veterans' advocates hope it’s just the start.
Published in Healthcare Transformation