MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Since news broke out of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs fiasco, facilities nationwide have been sent into a tailspin.
It was a major black eye for the VA and a slap to the face for millions of veterans who rely on the health care system. There's still a lot of questions, in terms of what's next. What's interesting, is that despite the backlash the VA is receiving this year, Charleston and it's six outpatient clinics -- including Myrtle Beach -- are seeing more veterans walk through the door than ever before.
South Carolina veteran shares experiences with VA
Kris Tourtellotte is still in the trenches. Not like his days in Vietnam, yet this fight is just as important to him: working to bring housing to his fellow comrades.
His work with his organization, "Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center" has brought him close to the VA over the years. He's seen successes and failures for others and himself.
"When I first started coming down here, I already had the service connected for my leg, and it took me a year and a half just to get an appointment with the orthopedic clinic down in Charleston," Tourtellotte says.
While improvements have been made since that experience in 2006, Tourtellotte believes the VA's hardships are due to an inundated system that can't keep up, and greed.
"I see a lot of guys who are going in there and getting some care that isn't service-connected, but 'hey you're already here.' So they're under the conception that once you're in the VA system, you're taken care of. That's simply not true. I mean even when I went into the service in 1966, nobody ever promised me health care for the rest of my life," Tourtellotte explains.
VA fiasco makes national headlines
Eligibility for benefits is already complicated. Add in backlogs, an aging scheduling system, and "bogus" claims, and you're dealing with a ticking time bomb.
Things exploded when the fallout hit national headlines in Spring 2014. Since then, the Veterans Health Administration ordered an audit of every VA facility in America to get a pulse on the good, the bad and the ugly.
In July, audit results were released showing nearly 40 percent of employees interviewed at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston reported that they were instructed to falsify appointment data - a number more than three times the national average.
Interim Director of Charleston VA speaks out
Anchor Heather Biance sat down with Interim Director of Charleston's VA Medical Center, Scott Isaacks, and asked, "Were you at all surprised by the results of that audit?"
"When I first saw the data, I was surprised. Until I saw the rest of the information. This points out that our staff may have misunderstood the procedures, they may have misunderstood the questions that were asked. This was data that really pointed out that we need to do further review," Isaacks says.
Isaacks' other criticism of the audit's data is that out of 500 schedulers employed in Charleston, only 25 employees were questioned.
"I don't feel that the data that's been put out there at this point is valid. We need to review it further. Certainly, it raises questions and those questions need to be answered moving forward," Isaacks explains.
This audit will mean additional review will take place at 111 VA Centers nationwide, including the facilities in Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Wilmington, and Charlotte.
President Obama signs VA reform bill into law
While many believe health care for veterans will improve now that President Obama has signed the $16 billion bill that hails more access to doctors, the hiring of new doctors and nurses, and leasing new medical facilities, not all is clear skies on the horizon.
Improved battlefield medicine helps more survive, but many wonder if the already over-capacity VA able can handle the influx of soon-to-be exiting military members and their complicated and often costly injuries.
"I've written many times that when you go to war, you budget the war, and you budget for after the war," Tourtellotte says. He has taken his frustrations to print, not just once, but numerous times. While the wars mentioned may be different, the core issue of not funding for when our men and women come home, is a problem our country has, in his opinion, never learned from.
Myrtle Beach veteran recalls his experience with the VA
"The things that happened in war, they happened," recalls local veteran Ted Sejda. "It's not like you have time to think about it. It's one minute peaceful - one minute, all hell breaks loose."
Like many combat veterans, it doesn't take much to snap Ted Sejda back to the front lines. "I spent my 21st birthday in Saigon," he says.
WMBF News caught up with Ted on his most recent trip to the VA in Charleston.
"Have you ever been denied any type of medical treatment or a delay in care that you were unsatisfied with?" Biance asks.
"No, and that's why I was so shocked about Arizona. When it comes to the VA, we pay their salaries...period. We're the taxpayers. You've got a Congressman. You have a Senator. You have a phone, 'Say excuse me, I have a problem,'" says Sejda.
In fact, Congressman Tom Rice's office held a veteran's forum just last week at Vet's Café.
Local VAs strive to regain trust
Regaining trust for every single one of the 58,000 veterans that the Charleston VA serves will prove to be the toughest battle yet - a battle that Interim Director Isaacks is ready for.
Isaacks explains, "I think the national discussion really has painted a broad brush stroke [for] all VAs. It has scared some veterans. We want veterans to come to the VA, and when they hear everything that's going on nationally, they don't want to come to the VA. That's the last thing that we want."
Isaacks expects care to continue to improve. Legislation for a new facility in Charleston and Myrtle Beach has been approved. Although it will take several years to get them functional, there is work underway that should expand the Myrtle Beach VA before the end of the year.
New plans for Charleston VA
We've also learned there's help on the way to alleviate the traffic problems at the Charleston VA Medical Center. The final design for the new parking deck is being completed. Ground is expected to be broken on the new deck later this year, and when it's all said and done, there will be approximately 300 additional spaces. Plus, this will open up the possibility for future expansions of the decks. Construction will take approximately 18 months. The Charleston VA is also approved for off-site leased parking that will provide approximately 600 additional spaces.
Staff numbers including doctors were dwindling for years, but the numbers have grown from approximately 1,700 in 2012 to more than 2,000 currently. The Charleston VA has approved 80 new clinical staff positions in the past year in Specialty Medicine, Primary Care, and Mental Health. Also, in the past two years, the Charleston VA has doubled its Mental Health staff, which includes expansion of its Tele-Mental health program to provide care to Veterans across multiple states, and expansion of the homeless program staff to all outlying locations.
The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, including its six outpatient clinics, care for more than 58,000 Veterans. Of that number, more than 11,000 receive care at the Myrtle Beach VA Outpatient Clinic, more than 12,000 at the Savannah Clinic, and more than 10,000 are seen at the Goose Creek Clinic. The Beaufort Clinic sees more than 4,000 patients and is expanding later this year adding more primary care, mental health and specialty care as that area continues to grow. The permanent Hinesville clinic opened in June 2014 with capacity to care for 7,200 patients. So far in FY 2014, the medical system has experienced an almost 7 percent growth in patients and is expected to grow by 8 to 10 percent by the end of the fiscal year. That is the largest single growth year ever.
Want to know what programs are available locally near you? Veterans can go to www.va.gov for the latest information on VA programs and eligibility.