Dr. Austin King runs a private practice out of Abilene, and he's been seeing veteran patients for years. Recently, one veteran came into the office with a neck cyst. After ordering a biopsy for the man, who is in his 80s, King, who's president of the Texas Medical Association, ordered pain medication for him. That's where he ran into the red tape mess that has become synonymous with the VA hospital system.
The man, feeble enough, could not get down to the local VA clinic to fill his prescription. But in order to get his medication to him, King found that he would have to fax the prescription to a VA medical facility in Big Spring, Texas, and the facility would then mail the medicine to the man. By then, of course, several days would have passed while the man was meanwhile in a significant amount of pain.
"I have to feel a little sorry for the VA system because I think they're overwhelmed. It was originally set up to handle service-injury people, but thats now been extended to every person that's been honorably discharged, and that's a tremendous amount of people that puts a strain on the system," King says. "I think the VA in most instances gives very good care, but sometimes it's not the most efficient way to give it."
King has recently helped launch an online registry to recruit private care physicians who are willing to see veterans. The program is intended to act as a placeholder alternative to the VA system for veteran patients, circumventing the system to provide other options for veterans who cannot put off medical needs legislative action reforms the system.
After stories started coming out this spring about long wait times for veterans in the VA healthcare system, medical organizations in Texas have been actively promoting statewide healthcare alternatives for veterans. Most veterans, under their governmental health plans, are limited to VA hospitals and clinics for their medical needs. But if private care physicians register to accept veteran patients through the TMA, a veteran can be referred to them as an alternative to VA medical centers. TMA's registry has already registered around 100 doctors today, and the TMA has received a barrage of calls from doctors willing to help in other ways.
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The move comes after evidence mounts that physicians are increasingly unwilling to work with government medical organizations, including the VA hospital system. Dallas-based physician recruiting company Medicus Firm reports that only 2.5 percent of doctors nationwide want to work with government-sponsored medical organizations. King says physicians are often frustrated with the red-tape and rules surrounding patient care. "The VA system is a bureaucracy where one rule is made and it's supposed to work for everybody. But as physicians we're used to tailoring to the needs of our patients with individual attention."
An VA system audit showed that approximately 60,000 veterans are currently facing longer than normal wait periods in the VA hospital system. According to a survey conducted by Merritt Hawkins, an Irving-based medical consulting company, veteran patients at the Dallas VA Medical Center face an average 60 day wait period, in comparison to five days for private citizens.
To King and his fellow Texas doctors, recent media attention surrounding VA system wait times was hardly news. King reports that Abilene veterans can go to the local clinic for basic needs, but if they need specialist care they must travel to Albuquerque. With some World War II veterans in his care, King says that such lengthy time and travel for medical care is impossible.
"Until the VA system can guarantee that every patient can access that system, we need to look at other options," he says. "And I think the registry is a good alternative option."