Updated after today’s show.
Backlogs in disability claims. Over-prescription of opiate narcotics. Exposure to blood-borne pathogens. Loose spending habits. In the last few years, the VA health care system has received a lot of negative media attention.
But according to Lynn Welling, that doesn’t mean veterans are receiving poor quality care. He is the chief of staff for the St. Louis VA Health Care System and a former Navy doctor.
“The criticism comes because we are doing the right thing,” said Welling. “Secretary Shinseki [in charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs]…about a year and a half ago, made a decision to [include] all of those vets with Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome issues who had been kind of pushed aside because the science wasn’t there to prove that was a fact. [He] said enough of this nonsense. We’re going to take care of you. And because of that decision, overnight we created backlogs in our care.”
Since that time, the backlog of veterans waiting to receive disability compensation has decreased. A year ago, almost 20,000 veterans were waiting for their claim to be processed. Now, the number is down to 14,886.
But while the number of veterans waiting has gone down, the average wait time has gone up. As of November 2013, veterans wait approximately 13 months for their claims to be processed by the St. Louis VA office. In November 2012, the average wait was about 11 months; an increase of 64 days.
The national data reflects the same trend over the past year, with 20 percent fewer veterans waiting on average 345 days (an increase of 73 days).
You can explore the data for yourself below.
St. Louis data:
Welling couldn’t explain why the wait time had increased. He said that the claims process is owned by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), not the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
“We work in concert together, to work those claims down,” said Welling. “When they get to me, our time frame right now is…under 30 days…we were down below 20 days, and then we got this big onset from Secretary Shinseki’s decision, it was up to 60 days, then we worked it back down again.”
Another recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed a 300 percent increase on opiate narcotic prescriptions by the VA over the past 10 years. The report linked the prescriptions to drug abuse, depression and suicide. The author of the report was a guest on St. Louis on the Air a month ago, and the story aired on St. Louis Public Radio in partnership with Reveal Radio.
“I can tell you it’s not just the VA. It’s a national epidemic,” said Welling. “Opiate narcotics abuse, prescription medication abuse, is a national phenomenon. We have a very active program where we take each one of our patients who come in, we scrutinize what they’re doing, we look at the medications they’re on. Often our patients come in with 20 to 30 medications, and we try to reduce that to the minimum number.”
He referenced the research linking narcotics to depression, and said the VA is working to share with patients that, “Narcotics don’t necessarily treat pain…you’re injured and you’re going to be in pain the rest of your life. How do we help you live with that?”
“We don’t want our veterans to be in pain, absolutely not,” he added. “But we also don’t want them to be addicted or to go down a pathway that will lead to social destruction.”
Between 2009 and 2010, almost 2,000 St. Louis area veterans were potentially exposed to blood-born pathogens at the John Cochran VAMC dental clinic. Money was set aside to deal with the problem, and a state-of the art sterile processing unit was constructed. Sentator McCaskill spoke out against both the exposure and the way the money was spent.
Both the exposure and the decision on how to spend the money occurred before Welling became chief of staff.
“We have our good days and our bad days,” said Welling of those events. “We’re on our way up.”
In general, Welling spoke positively of the innovation the VA healthcare system is undertaking, while acknowledging the long-term challenges it faces in dealing with the medial needs of five generations of veterans.
“It’s a huge challenge, but it’s a huge honor too,” said Welling. “These are our nation’s heroes.”
Correction: The St. Louis VA Healthcare System has 50,000 veterans in its care, not 20,000 as stated in the introduction. All told, there are more than 200,000 veterans in the St. Louis region eligible for medical care.