VA sending more vets to private doctors

The Dayton VA Medical Center increased referrals for veterans to receive care in the private sector by 29 percent during the past two months — slightly ahead of the national pace.

A total of 2,573 veterans who receive care at the Dayton facility had the option to see a doctor outside the VA in June and July. Last year, 1,993 veterans were referred during those months, according to numbers released Friday by the VA.

Nationally, the VA made more than 838,000 referrals for veterans to receive care from the private sector in June and July, VA secretary Robert McDonald said at an AMVETS convention in Memphis this week. That is a 25 percent increase from last year.

Part of the VA’s strategy to improve wait times at its facilities is to offer referrals to doctors outside the VA network.

“We began significantly increasing our referrals over the past year, long before the allegations out of Phoenix and the legislative guidance that followed,” Dayton VA spokesman Ted Froats said. “We do everything we can to treat a veteran here in a timely manner, but in instances where that is not possible, we’d rather the veteran be seen by a non-VA physician rather than ask them to linger on a wait list until we have an opening.”

The VA has been working to reduce wait times in the wake of reports of tens of thousands of veterans who had to wait three months or longer to see a doctor. Eighteen died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

A recent audit showed wait times at the Dayton VA were better than the national average.

Billions for care

President Barack Obama last week signed a VA health care bill that provides $16.3 billion to help improve the quality of care for veterans. Included is $10 billion for private doctors treating veterans who have trouble getting timely appointments at a VA hospital or clinic.

The new law also includes $5 billion to help hire more doctors and other staff.

The Dayton VA is actively recruiting for 27 openings, Froats said. The facility has four openings for primary care physicians, down from seven last month. Among other openings are postings for eight psychologists, two general surgeons and one dentist.

The Dayton VA has a $322 million budget and treats about 38,000 veterans. It has outpatient clinics in Springfield, Middletown, Lima and Richmond, Ind.

Local veterans have mixed views of the VA. Greg Dague, 54, is a Navy veteran who says he has received better service at the west Dayton hospital than at private hospitals.

“The waits are not long at all. They get you in and get you out,” Dague said. “They treat me with respect. I had a colonscopy there and they treated me well.

“You go to a civilian doctor and you’ll sit in that waiting room for 45 minutes to an hour. When I go to the VA, I might have a 15, 20 minute wait, max, and they get me in, and they’re very thorough.”

Air Force veteran Steve Lewis of Miami Twp. said he visited his VA primary care physician Friday after waiting two-and-a-half months for an appointment. He said that is better than the wait times he has seen in previous years.

“It was six months at one time,” he said.

Lewis said he would ask his physician about the option of getting care elsewhere, though he’s skeptical about how many veterans will have transportation to outside doctors.

“I think that’s a good idea,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be used as often as it possibly could … because people are used to the VA and they can’t get to other places.”

The VA spent about $4.8 billion nationwide last year on medical care at non-VA hospitals and clinics — about 10 percent of health care costs for the Veterans Health Administration, the agency’s health care arm.

Positive experience

Army veteran Will Young of Dayton suffered a stroke in January and credits the hospital for helping him recover.

“It’s been good to me. It saved my life,” Young said. “It has a state-of-the art rehab facility. Back in January I couldn’t walk, talk or move. My arm has come along. It’s been some of the best care I’ve got as a veteran.”

Young thinks the influx of money to hire more doctors is another positive.

“It’s going to be great now if they can hire some more doctors,” he said. “They have a heckuva case load.”

Dague acknowledged that some veterans may have had problems at the VA, but he said the facility is getting “a bad rap.”

“People have bad experiences in all aspects of life,” he said. “I really don’t think the VA should be beat up this bad.”

Staff writer Josh Sweigart and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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