Above Photo: Patty Hampton, Dr. Bruce Fischer, Don Kohn, Jack Schonely and Ron Wilson
By V. Susan Hutchinson
On October 23 HCDP gathered a group of local veterans at the Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center in Little River to discuss their experiences and challenges with accessing healthcare through the Veterans Administration. When asked what their biggest concerns are for veterans in South Carolina, the group began by discussing area resources.
Patty Hampton, a US Air Force veteran, said that options for healthcare in Myrtle Beach have improved in the 31 years she has been here due to the opening of two Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOC) for routine care. Although Hampton believes the newly planned clinic will help, she said the area needs a large medical center as veterans now must travel on their own or via emergency transport to Charleston for inpatient care.
At the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, Hampton said there are not always beds open for inpatients, especially women. The only option then is to go to Grand Strand Medical Center or one of the other local hospitals. As the Veterans Administration (VA) has an agreement with U.S. medical schools, Hampton hopes that with a Florence based campus of the University of South Carolina Medical School, there may be an opportunity for a closer VA hospital to be built in the future.
Current VA Outpatient Options In Myrtle Beach
The VA CBOC are located in the Market Common area. The Myrtle Beach and Market Commons VA Clinics both have only day hours Monday through Friday with only the Myrtle Beach Clinic open Wednesday until 6:30p and half day on Saturdays. Neither facility is open Sunday.
The non-urgent wait time for appointments is similar between both locations with Market Commons Clinic slightly longer; however, for new patients at either clinic, the primary care wait time is 6-8 days with mental health 4-7 days and women’s health 11-12 days. Market Common VA also offers optometry services.
A new 84,000 square foot facility near Market Common is expected to open in November 2020. The new clinic is intended as another CBOC and will provide services for “more advanced medical care”. It is unknown what that advanced medical care will entail. All that is known is that the facility will not provide in-patient services as it has no hospital beds. That remains in Charleston with no plans to build a VA medical center closer to the Myrtle Beach area.
Ron Wilson, a US Army veteran and Director of the Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center, noted that 100-150 new veterans move to the Grand Strand area every week. Based on current wait times for new patients and the large influx of veterans to the area, the addition of the new clinic may or may not alleviate the long wait times for new veterans who need medical and psychiatric services.
The arrival of so many veterans also raises the question of how long it will be before the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston is unable to manage the increase in patients from Myrtle Beach and other parts of the state for inpatient treatment and services that aren’t available locally. Based on Patty Hampton’s statement about lack of beds for women, it appears this medical center is already challenged in some areas of care.
Other VA Healthcare System Challenges
Wilson said the VA has tried to fill the gaps for advanced healthcare needs if the veteran lives more than 50 miles from a VA medical center; however, these programs, such as VA Choice, require filing forms and have their own “strings attached”. The VA Choice Program is now obsolete and has been replaced with the Veteran Community Care program. A few of the participants told stories about their frustrations with filing claims.
The VA has dedicated areas intended to help get various types of claims through the system, but Wilson said that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, which is why a large volume of the Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center’s work involves assisting veterans with claims.
Keith Bacon, a U.S Army veteran and Chairman of the Center’s Board of Directors added that paid, VA employees will refer veterans to their non-profit center for assistance rather than try to complete the process for them. Bacon said there is something “not right about this”; however, both Wilson and Bacon encourage veterans to come to the Center to get help.
As the VA has now implemented electronic submissions, veterans who are not computer savvy will find that coming to the center is easier than trying to navigate the online system and will have a better chance of being approved.
An Important Observation from Dr. Bruce Fischer
Dr. Bruce Fischer, a US Army veteran, emphasized that the quality of care received is excellent “when it’s available”. He then related his frustrations with getting in to see a specialist in Charleston for a dermatology issue; a process that took entirely too long.
Fischer also made a profound statement about the VA. He said “When we all went in the service there was basically a guarantee. You take the risk of putting your life on the line and they pretty much guarantee that if something happens to you, we’re there.”
He continued by asking “Why do you (i.e. the Welcome Home Center) have to exist? Why isn’t the VA, the federal government, in general, picking up all these issues?” Fischer said “the Wounded Warrior program is great, but they shouldn’t have to exist. The VA should follow these people until they don’t need to be followed anymore; not just until they are stabilized, but until they don’t need to be seen.”
Other participants concurred with Fisher saying the VA promises to take care of service men and women “for the rest of your life”. It’s past time the VA and the federal government started living up to that promise.
Attendees: Susan Hatcher, Chief Harold “Buster” Hatcher, Richard Trout and Michael Pearman
For background information on the discussion attendees, please see HDCP Thanks Local Veterans for Discussion on VA Issues.
To read more about other topics discussed see Red Tape, Bureaucratic Delays Frustrate Horry County Veterans.
To see a video of the discussion please click here.
To learn more about the Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center, click here for a video presentation.