(Editor’s note: Former N&O columnist Dennis Rogers offers this column about a visit to the VA.)
I was ready to rumble.
No petty bureaucrat was going to push me around. I’d been reading the horror stories about Veterans Affairs, how the books were being cooked to make it appear the wait time for appointments was a matter of days rather than months and how all the while the brass was receiving bonuses for such perfidy.
Day after day, newspapers were reporting that people were dying before they could get in to see medical professionals. Whistleblowers inside the VA were being harassed.
Now it was my turn. I had waited patiently – sort of – for 17 weeks for an appointment at the Wilmington VA facility to have my hearing tested. This would be my first time in the VA health care system and I was, to put it mildly, suspicious and on guard.
“I am an honorably discharged veteran and you can’t treat me this way,” my impassioned spiel would begin. “I served my country blah, blah, blah.”
It would be a piece of poetic outrage. My angry rhetoric might even get me the now-vacant state poet laureate job.
How it begins ...
I walked in the door at the VA at 7:15 a.m. for my 7:30 appointment. I strode purposely, as only a grumpy 71-year-old geezer with only one cup of coffee can, right up to the front desk and announced my rather obvious arrival to the young security guard.
Darn, didn’t expect that.
He asked for my VA identification card. OK, here we go with the bureaucratic runaround. I announced I didn’t have one, in the “what ’cha gonna make of that, pal?” tone of voice I had been rehearsing.
“Not a problem, sir,” he said and patiently walked me through the brief automated sign-in procedure.
“Have a nice day, sir, and thank you for your service. Someone will come for you in a few minutes,” he said.
This was not going as planned.
I sat down to wait at 7:25 a.m. I pulled out my trusty paperback and settled back to read for the hour or so I knew I would be waiting.
I got through one paragraph before yet another smiling person came to the nicely appointed waiting room to lead me down the hall. Wait time: one minute.
There, I was introduced to my primary health care team, headed by nurse practitioner Melinda Miller, registered nurse Priscilla Tears, licensed practical nurse Kelly Cline and medical support assistant Mesha Batts. They would be the folks taking care of me, unlike some private practices where you are shuffled around to whoever is available.
Dignity and respect
These folks actually took the time to talk to me and to answer my many questions. From the moment I walked in, I was treated with dignity, compassion, efficiency and respect. For the first time in 44 years, I was in the company of people who made me feel that my military service was important to them and to the country and I deserved the best they had to offer.
The follow-up experience has been just as delightful. I have emailed the team at least three times to ask rookie questions. Every email has been answered within hours with the information I needed. Every person I’ve talked to on the phone, in Wilmington or at the head office in Fayetteville, has been friendly, informed and efficient. Miller even took the time to call and patiently discuss a decision she’d made regarding my care.
When’s the last time your doctor called you?
Within a week of my visit, a large package of prescriptions was delivered. Medications, some of which cost upward of $140 for a one-month supply of one drug, would now cost $9 each. I have been approved for a hearing evaluation and, if needed, a hearing aid that will save me thousands more. And since the backlog at VA for hearing tests is more than 30 days, I will be able to go to the civilian doctor of my choice and the VA will pay for it.
Always the journalist, I like to think in-depth and hard-nosed reporting has made life better for the millions of veterans who depend on the VA for their health care. And truth be told, I don’t know if the superb care I have received so far is a direct result of the VA trying to burnish its image or is commonplace at the Wilmington facility.
But I do know this: I have never been treated better at a private, for-profit, medical practice than I was at the VA. There are reasons, I think: adding staff at a private practice to better take care of patients cuts into profits, so it is smart business to have the minimum staff needed to handle the patient load. Finding the optimum time that patients are willing to wait to be seen is a smart business decision.
The VA, at least from my limited experience, has been on the other end of the spectrum. At one point, I apologized for creating an even heavier workload for my medical team.
“Don’t apologize,” a team member said. “You’ve earned this, and we’re honored to help you.”