Texas Veterans say VA wait times still a problem

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With Veteran’s Day next week, some Texans who served our country say they feel forgotten.

Wait times at several Texas Veterans Affairs hospitals are not matching up to what’s being publicly reported online, according to four veterans.

“It very much makes me upset,” said Timothy Kinsey, a Marine, who served overseas. “Because I am in pain.”

Kinsey is battling the VA over a shoulder injury. More than a decade ago, he was diagnosed with a shoulder injury, including a tendon tear, according to military records. He says it’s getting worse and wants help. Instead, he feels he is getting the “run around” from the Austin VA.

He says he has to wait months to get “permission” from a VA doctor in order to wait some more just to “talk” to a shoulder specialist — even though the VA already has records of his shoulder injury.

That, he says, is the VA policy. The VA says it is part of its “treatment plan” for Kinsey that may include primary care, rehab and specialists.

“It is our responsibility to ensure Mr. Kinsey received high quality, comprehensive health care,” a VA spokesperson said, “and we will continue to work with him on his needs.”

Timothy Kinsey showed KXAN this 2010 MRI which found a partial tendon tear of his tendon. He says the VA should allow him to see a shoulder specialist, without having to wait for permission from a primary care doctor. (Courtesy Timothy Kinsey)
Timothy Kinsey showed KXAN this 2010 MRI which found a partial tendon tear of his tendon. He says the VA should allow him to see a shoulder specialist, without having to wait for permission from a primary care doctor. (Courtesy Timothy Kinsey)

‘Absolutely insane’

“I have to wait three months for the primary care [doctor] to tell me it’s OK [to get my shoulder looked at],” said Kinsey. “By the time I get to specialty care, it’s been six months, and I’m already defeated mentally because I had to wait so long.”

The VA outpatient clinic in Austin is the largest in the country, reporting an average wait time of 18 days. The VA says, here, the average wait for established patients is five days.

“I don’t think I’ve ever waited less than 30 days for anything,” Kinsey shot back.

Kinsey’s father-in-law, Don Jackson, is a Navy veteran who served in the Gulf War.

“Some of the stuff that I witnessed, some of the stuff that I went through, you never forget those things,” said Jackson, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jackson says virtual visits, or phone calls, once a month at the Cedar Park VA, with rotating mental health counselors, is not adequate to treat his PTSD.

“It’s maddening,” said Jackson.

  • The VA lists an average wait time of 46 days at the Temple

General mental health appointments are available “in less than 20 days,” the VA said.

The Central Texas VA Health Care System offers same-day mental health services for those in need, a VA spokesperson said, adding “many” veterans chose to remain with virtual care, even when in-person appointments were offered. Last year, the Central Texas VA conducted 4,531 same-day mental health services for veterans, an official added.

“[We] do understand that some patients do prefer in-person care,” a VA spokesperson said. “We continue to work diligently to accommodate the needs of each Veteran, just as we have done in Mr. Jackson’s case.”

Kyle Haddock and his girlfriend, Krystal Grzeskik, both Army veterans, are also unhappy. Both were told, according to letters, that it will take around three months to establish primary care appointments in Temple – even though the average wait time there is listed as a-month-and-a-half.

“I think it’s absolutely insane to wait that long,” said Haddock.

  • Timothy Kinsey, a Marine, says he has to wait to get permission from an Austin VA doctor to talk to a shoulder specialist. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)
  • Don Jackson, a Gulf War veteran, says he is not getting adequate treatment for his PTSD. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)
  • Kyle Haddock, an Army veteran, says it took three months to establish primary care in Temple.

“Waiting to get care,” said Kinsey, “is probably emotionally draining to a lot of veterans.”

Nearly 20 million appointments were canceled or delayed nationwide during the pandemic, according to the VA. A third of appointments canceled between March and May last year – 2.3 million – “had no indication of follow up or tracking,” a Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General report found.

“We are confident all Veterans who had their appointments cancelled for safety reasons during the pandemic have been offered video and/or telephone care,” a VA spokesperson said, “or have had the opportunity to reschedule in-person care with a VA provider or, if eligible, with community health care provider.”

‘Inexcusable’

KXAN reached out to a half-dozen federal lawmakers from Texas, including four on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. None were available to talk on camera.

In a statement, Congressman Chip Roy (R-Austin) says what these veterans tell KXAN is “simply inexcusable.”

“Long wait times at the VA are simply inexcusable,” said Roy. “But, unfortunately, because of bloated bureaucracy and unnecessary red tape the VA healthcare system too often fails our veterans.”

Rep. Roy says he is hearing “more and more complaints about this” very issue from other Texas veterans and pledged to take action.

“As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee,” he said, “I intend to look into the matter thoroughly. Those who risk everything to defend our republic and blessings of liberty deserve better.”

Earlier this year, Roy introduced a bill — the Veterans Access to Direct Primary Care Act — which would give health savings accounts to veterans to use towards seeing private doctors outside of the VA.

“Just a veteran and a doctor,” he said, “that’s how simple it should be.”

“I will continue to work with the Administration,” added Rep. John Carter (R-Round Rock) in a statement when told about the veterans’ concerns, “and my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to continually improve the Veteran community’s quality of life.”

The concerns are not new, dating back to at least 2016 when an IG report stated wait times were manipulated in Austin with “improper scheduling” that was “systemic.

‘Significant strides’

In an email, the VA defends its handling of the veterans we spoke with saying it “didn’t miss a beat” during the pandemic and “never closed its doors.” Nationwide, the VA conducted more than 70 million face-to-face, telephone, and video visits this year. Officials say wait times vary by location, type of care and whether a patient is new ore established.

“Just like at community medical facilities, VA wait times do vary from location to location, primary care versus specialty care, and for new patients versus established patients,” a VA spokesperson said.

The Central Texas VA conducted more than 280,000 virtual appointments since the start of the pandemic.

“The Central Texas VA Health Care System has made significant strides in health care delivery and accountability,” a VA spokesperson said. “In fact, it is now a leader across VA with innovative approaches to health care and dedicated staff at the helm making it so.”

Meanwhile, the three veterans, who stood together in the shadow of the Austin VA, say they will keep fighting – not just for their own health care, but for those they served alongside.

“I think about everybody else,” said Kinsey. “I know other people are hurting more than me.”

A VA representative tells KXAN he is reaching out personally to the veterans in our story to try to help resolve their concerns.

In need of help?

If you are a veteran in crisis and considering suicide, please call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.  

Veterans who are having difficulty accessing care or need help can contact the White House VA Hotline at https://www.va.gov/ve/whvahotline.asp or by calling 1-855-948-2311  

Veterans can visit this website to see the latest wait time information: www.accesstopwt.va.gov/PWT/SearchWaitTimes  

See how your local VA compares to others here: https://www.accesstopwt.va.gov/Healthcare/QualityOfCare

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