New data shows many veterans still waiting to see a VA doctor

Dangerous delays at VA
Published: Apr. 9, 2015 at 3:42 PM EDT|Updated: May. 9, 2015 at 4:48 PM EDT
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ROCK HILL, S.C. (WBTV) - Sitting outside in the quiet, in front of a little lake on his York County property, George Burkett turns the pages of an old scrap book.

It's as if he can once again hear the those awful noises that ended his teenage years.

"This is my platoon in Vietnam," said Burkett looking down at himself and a group of mostly teenagers in an aging color photo. "This is on Hill 41."

He was 18, a Marine and a long way from Rock Hill, South Carolina.

"A grunt, just tromping through rice paddies, climbing mountains," said Burkett.

As it turns out he was also defying the odds, by simply surviving. He rattles off near misses like most of us would a grocery list.

"A rocket hit the tent I had just walked out of," said Burkett. "I got shot through the helmet one time. I went down in Huey 46 (helicopter)."

He somehow made it home and built a life and a construction business. The contracting work he'd pass on to his son. Nearing retirement, Burkett picked up a job driving a school bus for the Fort Mill School District. All seemed to be going just fine, until last month, when we went to the Veterans Administration Clinic in Rock Hill.  It was a follow up visit after some worries about high blood pressure.

"I went in, my chest was hurting," said Burkett. "I told the nurse and they did an EKG on me and that looked okay."

His doctor also said it would be a good idea to have a nuclear stress test. It couldn't be done on-site. It would require a trip to the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia. In the meantime, Burkett was given a warning.

"They said if you have any hurting in your arm, your jaw gets tight, get to the hospital quick because you're probably having a heart attack," said Burkett.

His wife Judy couldn't believe it.

"I thought they'd have sent him to the hospital on that day," said Judy Burkett.

George told his wife he'd be fine. He would just wait for the test to be scheduled in Columbia. It turns out his heart had other plans.  Just three days later, George was off to play tennis.  Judy, who would normally stay home, decided to go along.

"A guy who normally plays two hours couldn't make ten minutes," said Judy Burkett.

Short of breath and hurting they were off to Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte. Within hours they were having that stress test.

"90% blockage in one artery and 99% in the other," said George Burkett.

Two days later doctors were operating, performing bypass surgery. It's also when a letter showed up at home. The VA had scheduled his stress test for April 3rd. A full month after his initial visit to the Rock Hill clinic.

"He wouldn't have made it another month without having a heart attack," said Judy Burkett.

Waiting for care at the VA is a nationwide epidemic. Since the problem was first exposed last year, politicians made lots of speeches and billions of dollars were promised, but 6 months of data compiled by the Associated Press not only shows the issue persists, it's especially acute here in the Carolinas.

WEB EXTRA: Click here to see the full data

Nationally, 2.78% of VA patients between August 2014 and February 2015, had their care delayed more than 31 days. The data shows nearly 5%, or roughly 9600 patients were waiting for care at the VA Medical Center in Columbia. In Salisbury, North Carolina, 4.55%, more than 7-thousand patients had care delayed more than a month and in Fayetteville, the AP analysis shows some of the worst numbers in the country for VA Medical Centers. 7.73% percent, more than 10-thousand veterans were stuck on a waiting list.

"It's like a big bottle neck," said George Burkett.

A spokesperson for the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, citing federal privacy laws, says he cannot comment specifically on Burkett's case. Public Affairs Specialist Dwayne Rider said the VA has been focusing the broader issue of wait time issue since May 2014. He says Dorn is now offering weekend and after hours scheduling. Rider says the Dorn VA has hired more than 30 new physicians, 80 registered nurses and 40 medical support assistants in the past year.

The Dorn VA said progress is being made. Its numbers show from May 2014 to March 2015 new patient wait time averages have decreased from 55 days to 27.  Established patients have seen wait times go from 27 to 21 days.

Burkett says in his case he doesn't blame the doctors, or the the nurses. He says it's the volume, the red tape. He points a finger at the politicians.

"Roll up your sleeves, quit bickering and do something," said Burkett.

It's because he knows the next veteran might not be as lucky as he was, to beat death one more time.

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