VA Medical Center freezes primary health care

By Megan R. Harrell
Star Staff

   Veterans are being denied primary health care services at the Mountain Home VA Medical Center, Johnson City. The hospital is not accepting new primary care patients because it lacks the necessary funding.
   Veterans from Carter County come to Randy Lingerfelt's office every day to pick up applications for health benefits. This week, Lingerfelt, County Veterans Service Officer, learned many of the veterans applying for health care benefits would be added to the backlog already waiting for primary care at the VA Medical Center.
   This is not the first time the VA has put a freeze on primary health care. New patients couldn't receive primary care at the VA hospital for three months in 2001. Primary health care was not an option for new patients from July to the beginning of October last year. Now, only three months into the fiscal year, the freeze has been reinstated indefinitely.
   In the meantime, veterans who come to the hospital are put on waiting lists for primary health care. There are currently over 3,000 individuals on the waiting list. Veterans on the list can only receive primary care after somebody in the program dies or leaves it voluntarily. The VA is going to hold its numbers steady until more funds are made available.
   The lack of funds for services that were promised to veterans is hard for many veterans to handle. Lingerfelt was in the service for 26 years, and can sympathize with local veterans. "When a person goes into the military they are told that they will be taken care of, and that is not happening," Lingerfelt said.
   The VA Medical Center is sending patients seeking primary care for health needs such as the common cold or diabetes to the emergency room. These patients do not receive attention from a permanent doctor and are often given prescriptions and sent home. A visit to the emergency room means long waits for patients simply needing a prescription renewal.
   Lingerfelt believes the primary health care freeze is a violation of the Veteran's Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996. The act made health care benefits available to all honorably discharged veterans, and promised them quality and timely health care. Lingerfelt could argue that the treatment veterans are receiving at the VA emergency room is neither timely, nor accurate, for many veterans' health needs.
   With protective legislation like the Reform Act of 1996, and recent political commitments to veteran affairs, it is hard to imagine how the VA Medical Center could be at the point where it cannot provide adequate health care to local veterans. "President Bush said in his State of the Union address that he was going to give more money to veteran health programs," Lingerfelt said. "Where is the money? We do not have any money."
   The lack of funding for primary health care raises questions about the overall quality of care veterans receive. If examined, some veteran health care benefits have room for improvements.
   The legislation in 1996 paved the way for a medical benefits package for all veterans. The package includes limited nursing home care, and limited dental care among other benefits. However, the nursing home health care benefit only covers veterans who have short-term or post surgery needs. A veteran, suffering with an illness such as cancer or Alzheimer's disease, would have to be placed in a private nursing home, and families would be stuck with the costs.
   Dental care is all but non-existent for veterans. Only veterans who received damage to their teeth while in service can receive benefits for dental care. All other veterans pay for their own, non-service related dental work.
   Lingerfelt is calling on veterans from Carter County to take action to fight for the health care they were promised and deserve. "I would personally encourage each and every veteran to stand up for their rights and contact their congressman, senator, or state representative," Lingerfelt said. "We need to bring this up through the House or Senate in order to get more money appropriated to primary health care."
   Legislators believe they are doing their best to fund veteran affairs. Congressman Bill Jenkins stated that he has given nearly one billion dollars to veteran health care each year since he has been in Congress. "I am certainly sympathetic toward all the veterans who are having to wait any period of time for health care," Congressman Jenkins said. "We have been confronted with this before and have dealt with it. At one time those waiting lists were eliminated."
   Jenkins cited the region's unusually large veteran population as one of the causes for the lack of funding. There are currently 6,420 veterans in Carter County alone. The congressman also noted that World War II and Korean veterans are getting to the ages where they require more health care.
   "I am committed to helping the veterans and will look into this to see what we can do to help resolve this situation," Jenkins said. He stated that he would go to the Veterans Administration for answers, and would seek input at a local level to find a solution to the backlog of veterans seeking primary health care in this region.