Veterans in the San Luis Valley have been driving hundreds of miles for doctor appointments for five months despite a congressional plea to the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary to help them.
The only doctor at the VA clinic in Alamosa departed in April, and the agency has been unable to fill the vacancy.
A spokesman said the VA has been providing telehealth services and sending doctors part-time from other clinics while it searches for a permanent replacement.
But the leader of a local veterans group questioned whether VA doctors have been coming to Alamosa. “No one has reported seeing an actual doctor. We have only seen nurses,” said Richard Nagley, a disabled Vietnam War veteran.
About 5,000 veterans live in the area served by the Alamosa clinic, in sparsely populated counties where 10 percent of the population served in the armed forces.
The issue comes as new numbers show that the VA’s eastern Colorado region — which includes Denver, the Eastern Plains and a large swath of southern Colorado — dropped this year to the third-worst in the country for appointment wait times.
Colorado’s U.S. senators, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton wrote to VA Secretary Robert McDonald in May to notify him that the Alamosa clinic’s only doctor had left and to urge expanded veteran access to local non-VA care.
“It is past time to come to a long-term solution for San Luis Valley veterans that enables them to meet the majority of their health and behavior health care needs without having to make the 466-mile roundtrip to the Denver VA Medical Center,” they wrote. “San Luis Valley veterans have been exceedingly patient throughout this process.”
Nagley, a leader of the Veterans Coalition for the San Luis Valley, said he met Bennet and Gardner recently to plead again for medical help. The group plans a conference Sept. 18 at Adams State College in Alamosa to publicize veterans’ plight.
“We have been without a doctor since April. That’s a problem for veterans,” Nagley said. In Alamosa, “they can take your temperature and a blood sample. That’s about all the clinic can do. If you need an X-ray, the VA will send you to Colorado Springs.”
Daniel Warvi, a VA spokesman in Denver, said the medical center has been trying to bring a new full-time doctor to Alamosa.
“The Alamosa VA Clinic has had continuous primary care provider coverage since the departure of the assigned physician,” he said. “We have been (closely) monitoring patient care in Alamosa during this transition period, and we want to assure our veterans in the San Luis Valley that they are getting the best care we can provide.”
Meanwhile, area veterans routinely drive more than 200 miles to and from appointments in Pueblo or Colorado Springs clinics, or 466 miles from Alamosa to the Denver medical center and back.
“Last week, I had to drive to Denver for rheumatoid arthritis,” Nagley said Wednesday. “Tomorrow, I have to drive to Pueblo to see the shrink, 114 miles away.”
He said colonoscopies, CAT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds, diabetes checkups and even a change in prescription glasses mean trips to Colorado Springs, Pueblo or Denver.
“The standard line — appointments in 14 days — you can just throw it out the window or hold your breath,” he said.
Tom Krzesinski, a 65-year-old veteran who uses the Alamosa clinic, said he is battling an intestinal problem that makes him vomit and has taken antibiotics for about six months.
He came to Denver this week for surgery. Krzesinski said he is one of many vets in the San Luis Valley frustrated by the absence of medical care they were promised.
“These guys need a doctor,” he said. “It’s already been months, and it may be months longer.”
The Denver Post previously reported that as of Jan. 1, just seven of about 140 medical centers nationwide had a higher percentage of veterans waiting a month or more for medical appointments than Denver and its satellite clinics.
New data show only Fayetteville, N.C., and Dublin, Ga., higher than the Denver region on the wait-time list.
The overall percentage of veterans with pending appointments of a month or more in the Denver region jumped from 13.7 percent in January to 17.2 percent as of Aug. 15. The Alamosa, Pueblo and Colorado Springs clinics all reported that more than 20 percent of veterans have pending wait times in excess of 30 days.
While some medical centers with long waiting lists for appointments reported progress this year, the national picture has not improved. In January, 6.7 percent of appointments nationwide were scheduled more than a month out. That climbed to 7.2 percent in August.
VA leaders have said a decade of war and soldiers surviving more complicated injuries are increasing numbers of medical appointments.
There are two sets of wait-time statistics the VA updates periodically. One lists waiting times of veterans whose appointments are still pending. The other lists how long veterans who already saw a doctor actually waited for those appointments.
The latter shows much shorter average waiting times, and the VA prefers to cite those statistics.
During a visit to Colorado on Thursday, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said many veterans never make the pending list because they see a doctor the same day or almost immediately. But they are counted in the completed appointments list, bringing down average wait times.
The most recent numbers show that a lower portion of eastern Colorado veterans who saw a doctor waited a month or more: 7.67 percent versus 17.2 percent on the pending list.
But on that scale, the Denver medical center and its clinics are still third-worst in the country.
David Olinger: 303-954-1498, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/dolingerdp