The $10 billion federal program that was designed to address long waiting time for care and Veterans Affairs clinics across the country has not lived up to its promise.
That's the finding of an NPR report this week, which found that nationally, veterans are waiting even longer to see doctors -- more than a month in many cases.
Locally, the wait times for primary care appointments, an average of 10 and-a-half days, were more than four days longer this month compared to last May at the Rochester and Canandaigua VA facilities.
Todd Baxter, executive director of the Veterans Outreach Center, says he hears from veterans who are frustrated by the new Veterans Choice program, which allows veterans to see a non-VA doctor if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility or have to wait longer than 30 days for an appointment to see a VA provider.
"For instance, if you call the Veteran's Choice program to get an appointment, you have to call back several days in a row to make sure they're fulfilling their end of the obligation, which is just absurd. You call any other organization or service provider and they may call you a couple of days ahead of time to confirm the appointment."
Baxter says it's not VA employees who are the problem, but the system.
"The VA has too many potential customers, and they're not putting the resources behind it, whether it's infrastructure or money. Right here in Rochester, we're looking for that new VA outpatient clinic that even our local legislators have been pushing for years and years, and the VA is dragging its heels and not fulfilling its obligation to the Rochester region."
Baxter offers two potential solutions to the volume demands placed on VA facilities.
One is allowing veterans to use ID cards to use at non-VA local hospitals. "The veterans I'm dealing with are driving by wonderful institutions like the University of Rochester and Rochester General Hospital that everybody else gets to go to. I'd much rather see an ID card, that we can use in these local hospitals, which are great institutions, and save the VA hospitals for the more institutionalized things that veterans need."
His other suggestion is to create more small, community-based clinics for routine medical care, similar to the Rochester outpatient clinic on Westfall Road.