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Lawmakers hear complaints at Colorado Springs meeting, but say fixing VA health care is not easy

April 26, 2016 Updated: April 26, 2016 at 5:59 am
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photo - The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to offer its patients same-day care at each of its medical centers by year's end, including the VA Outpatient Clinic at 3141 Centennial Blvd. in Colorado Springs.  (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to offer its patients same-day care at each of its medical centers by year's end, including the VA Outpatient Clinic at 3141 Centennial Blvd. in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

U.S. Reps. Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman met with veterans Monday morning to gather ammunition they say they will use against the Department of Veterans Affairs in a push for reform.

Both lawmakers say bumbling by the agency has led to continued long wait times at its Colorado Springs clinic.

The latest numbers from the agency show 27 percent of patients at the Colorado Springs clinic wait more than a month for appointments - the longest waits for a clinic its size in the country and 10 times the national average for VA patients forced to wait more than a month for care.

"They drop the ball way too often," Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, told a group of two dozen veterans and veterans' advocates.

Lamborn sits on a VA oversight subcommittee that Coffman, an Aurora Republican, chairs. The two say they have been fighting to get VA to clean up its Colorado Springs clinic since February report from the agency's internal watchdog showed scheduling shenanigans that included false records reporting 28 patients had same-day appointments when they actually waited an average of more than two months.

On Monday they heard from a string of veterans claiming long waits at the Floyd Lindstrom Clinic off Fillmore Street, countless yards of red tape and a staff more interested in keeping their jobs than helping veterans.

"I've been lied to ... I've been lied about and I've been put on hidden waiting lists," said Mike Purdy, a Marine veteran from Florissant.

Rick Clark of Colorado Springs said in addition to long waits, he's seen bad care - one doctor conducted two physical exams, "and he never laid a hand on me."

"I would disband them, privatize them and voucher it out," Clark said.

Coffman, who served as a Marine in the Persian Gulf War and with the Army in the later Iraq conflict, said VA foot-dragging on a program that would give veterans private physician care under the Veterans Choice Act is stalling reform.

"The ultimate thing that will change the bureaucracy is getting the Choice program to work," Coffman said, "If this clinic loses all of its patients the Choice program it's going to cease to exist."

But the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 has plenty of problems. Veterans described difficulty with scheduling during the meeting and doctors say it's a mess on their end, too.

"It takes six months or eight months - or never - to get reimbursed," said Jeff Anderson, who manages the Colorado Dermatology Institute.

VA has said it is working to hire more staff at the Colorado Springs clinic to alleviate wait times and has launched an effort to educate veterans and health care providers on the Choice program.

This month, David Shulkin, VA's undersecretary for health, told health care reporters the agency aims to expand a program offered elsewhere that will offer veterans same-day care. "This is not only possible, we're doing it today," Shulkin said.

Lamborn said serious congressionally mandated reform for VA is probably not in the offing this year. The lawmakers said Congress is mulling a number of reform bills, including measures to evaluate VA care facilities and make it easier to fire wayward workers. Several House-passed reform bills have languished in the Senate.

Lamborn said VA boss Robert McDonald has shown focus on community programs, including the agency's MyVA initiative, but has fought efforts to transform the agency with more privatized care and rebelled against a congressional call to fire workers involved in delays for patients.

"We just have to have some reform that goes way beyond Secretary McDonald talking about MyVA," Lamborn said. "That's just moving deck chairs around the Titanic."

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

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