Truman VA official talks customer service, scheduling

Local VA hospital officials talk

COLUMBIA, Mo. - While an investigation into Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country continues Thursday, a spokesman for the Truman VA Hospital in Columbia discussed the issues scheduling veterans and what the hospital does to provide quality care.

Stephen Gaither is a spokesman for Truman VA, who's worked for the hospital for nearly 37 years. He says the hospital treats 36,000 veterans at nine locations in mid-Missouri. Gaither says managing the VA system can be confusing, and Truman's veteran ambassador program helps its customers manage the red tape.

"Someone is new to our facility, they're not overwhelmed by the fact that the halls all look the same, the numbers are all confusing, where do I go with this letter," Gaither said. "They can help the veteran or the veteran's family get to where they need to get for that service."

John Morlock is a retired Army veteran living in Miller County. He says he's been treated at five VA facilities in 17 years, and Truman VA's customer service and treatment has been the best so far.

"People who I see, who I interact with at the VA, they do care," Morlock said. "And they are trying extremely hard, they are working extremely hard to take care of the vets."

The federal government began investigating Veterans Affairs hospitals after a reported list of veterans waiting years for care at a facility in Phoenix, Arizona. A former doctor at the hospital said forty veterans may have died while waiting for help.

Morlock says employees at Truman VA may be equipped to find a solution to schedule delays for veterans.

"If they had the responsibility of solving these issues, they would find a way of getting them solved," Morlock said.

According to federal guidelines, VA hospitals should schedule a veteran 14 days after his or her first contact with the hospital. Gaither said Truman VA schedules a veteran, on average, 20 days after the first call.

Truman VA Hospital serves 44 counties in Missouri, as well as Pike County, Illinois. Gaither said the hospital relies on healthcare providers in rural areas to assist them in serving veterans in those counties. When there isn't a nearby provider, it can cause delays for veterans looking for help.

"There'll be, maybe, an influx of new veterans, or a large number all of a sudden, and then we've got to deal with that," Gaither said. "So all of those factors lead to whether or not we can meet that goal of 14 days."

Those with emergency medical needs, though, won't need to wait. Under VA rules, a veteran with a physical or mental emergency qualifies for priority care, and "moves to the front of the line." 

"We don't want a veteran waiting to hear from us for an urgent, immediate need they may have," Gaither said.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is auditing every community clinic in the country. Gaither said the group checked Truman VA, and a preliminary report is due in a couple weeks. 

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