Budget Cuts Overwhelming In VA
By MELISSA B. ROBINSON
.c The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Thousands of veterans are being turned away from Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics because of shortages in money and staff, a congressional panel was told Tuesday.
``People are literally waiting until someone else dies before they can be taken care of,'' said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., chairman of the House Government subcommittee on national security, veterans affairs and international relations.
In Connecticut, beds in the VA's acute care psychiatric unit were slashed from over 200 to 30, forcing patients to wait for days for emergency treatment, said Edmund J. Burke, coordinator of veterans' services for the state's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. A VA day program for the mentally ill has a 51 percent staff shortage, Burke said.
In Florida, more than 42,000 veterans are on waiting lists to see a primary care doctor, said Republican Rep. Dave Weldon.
One 80-year-old disabled veteran, who flew 69 missions over Europe as a World War II tail gunner, was rejected by an outpatient clinic that isn't taking any new patients, Weldon said.
Throughout New England - where there's an estimated $40 million budget gap this year - over 8,000 veterans are on waiting lists for care, and 85 percent of facilities are running at full capacity, said Jeanette Chirico-Post, the VA's regional director.
Even in sparsely populated Idaho, about 3,000 veterans are waiting for some type of health care, said Republican Rep. Butch Otter.
Just because a veteran is on a waiting list doesn't mean he or she will go without health care. Some may have private insurance or other types of government coverage such as Medicare or Medicaid, and may seek care at non-VA hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices.
That's not good enough for veterans whose country promised to care for them, advocates say.
``What do I say to this veteran who is coughing up blood, has irregularities in his recent EKG, needs treatment for depression and substance abuse and the VA has no bed for him?'' asked Burke.
The crunch stems in part from a law passed by Congress in 1996 that opened VA medical facilities to nearly all veterans - not just the very poor and those with service-related disabilities. Since then, the number of veterans enrolled in VA health care has doubled, to 6 million.
05/14/02 19:49 EDT