Veterans deserving of quality medical care

South Bend Tribune

Last year’s scandal over delayed medical care for veterans brought a wave of outrage, demands for change and, eventually, a bipartisan deal in Congress — which provided about $17 billion in funding — to address the problems.

Nearly a year later, it turns out that veterans still are facing unacceptable wait times in many hospitals and clinics — among them, the Veterans Affairs clinic in South Bend, which is among 50 VA hospitals and clinics nationally with the highest percentage of appointments that took 31 days or longer to complete.

According to government data reviewed by The Associated Press, the South Bend VA Clinic had the country’s 45th-highest rate of long waits, with about 7 percent of its appointments failing to meet the VA’s goal for seeing patients within 30 days. That’s well above the national average of 2.8 percent.

According to the data, many veterans seeking treatment at four Indiana clinics — South Bend, Crown Point, Peru and Evansville — saw longer delays for care than the national average.

Teresa Calhoun, a spokeswoman for the VA’s Northern Indiana Health Care System, blames the South Bend delays on “staffing challenges” but says that federal funds provided by Congress last year have allowed managers to look for additional staff. LaPorte resident Rich Mrozinski, a Vietnam veteran, says the South Bend clinic is too small to deal with the volume of veterans who need its services.

Calhoun points out that the VA is close to securing a larger site in St. Joseph County for the clinic; construction is expected to be completed in fall 2017.

We are reminded of the warning uttered by more than a few in the wake of last year’s congressional response to the headline-making scandal that injected billions into the VA system: The systemic problems involved wouldn’t be easily solved and money wouldn’t guarantee a fix.

In statements, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, and U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown, responded to the news of the continuing problems. Walorski called it “appalling that our bravest and finest are waiting three times the national average.” She said she is asking the VA to abide by the bipartisan law passed last year “which clearly states that a veteran who attempts to schedule an appointment at their VA and must wait more than 30 days currently has the option to obtain care from a non-VA provider.”

Donnelly said the wait times are “unacceptable” and pledged to work with VA and local officials to make sure the issue is resolved. “This needs to get fixed once and for all.”

Fixing the problems in the South Bend VA Clinic — and in all VA clinics and hospitals for that matter — should be a priority for elected officials, first and foremost, but also for every citizen of this country. Providing timely access to medical care is the very least this country owes to those who fought to defend our freedoms.

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