The Department of Veterans Affairs is back in the headlines this week: Lawmakers in Washington are considering a $17 billion proposal to overhaul the department and improve health services for veterans.
Meanwhile, a young veteran from Los Angeles is still navigating the VA system. When Impatient readers first met 25-year-old Lance MacNiven in May, he was frustrated with the long wait times at the VA facilities in Los Angeles and Long Beach.
"When I call for an appointment," MacNiven said at the time, "it's never been weeks; it's always been months."
MacNiven recently tore his Achilles tendon playing flag football. This time around, he's been pleasantly surprised by how much smoother and more timely his care and treatment has been.
"It was definitely more timely, I think because of the severity of the injury," MacNiven told me, when I visited him yesterday at his apartment in Playa Vista. He has a thick cast on his leg, which he propped up on a chair.
He said Achilles injuries don't get better on their own, and surgery is often required. "So I think they basically had no choice but to see me immediately, because they couldn't have me walking around with my Achilles kind of hanging by a thread," he said.
Courtesy of Lance MacNiven
When MacNiven showed up at the emergency department at the Long Beach Medical Center on July 8, he said he waited 9 hours. He laughed in frustration.
Given MacNiven's past stories about the VA, I immediately pictured him sitting in one chair the whole time, waiting to be seen. But then he explained that included an exam, an X-ray, a 4-hour wait for an MRI, a diagnosis, and a splint.
He was told he'd need to return for surgery. In the past, he's waited a long time for appointments, and expected that would be the case this time, too.
"I've had fractured ankles and messed up fingers," he said. "I go to the ER, they wrap me up, and then tell me to make an appointment with my primary doctor, which usually takes a few weeks to a couple months."
Instead, he was told to return the following week for surgery. He said it was "definitely surprising" that the operation was scheduled so rapidly.
Courtesy of Lance MacNiven
MacNiven said the care he's received has been friendly and personalized.
"From the ER, the doctors were very nice and helpful, to surgery day, the surgeons and staff were helpful," he said.
He recalled explaining to the doctors that he had a trip planned, and asking if they could expedite his care and recovery. "They were willing to help me out personally, as opposed to me being a statistic, and saying, 'hey, no, this is the timeline,'" he said.
The experience has given MacNiven a fresh perspective on the VA.
Referring to the long wait times, he said: "Maybe it bottlenecks at entry, where it's hard to get checked in and be seen… Maybe it's just a problem being seen initially, more so than the overall care."
"I don’t like to downtalk the VA, because the concept of it is obviously a great service for veterans," added MacNiven. "There are just some improvements that could be done."
Veterans, we want to hear about your experiences with the VA - the positive, the negative, and everything in between. Share your stories in the comments section below or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org. Your insights will help shape our reporting.