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A young vet's frustration with long wait times at SoCal VA's



Lance MacNiven served in the US Navy from 2006 to 2010. Today, he's frustrated by the long wait-times at the VA medical centers in West Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Lance MacNiven served in the US Navy from 2006 to 2010. Today, he's frustrated by the long wait-times at the VA medical centers in West Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Courtesy of Lance MacNiven

In the latest twist in the scandal brewing around the Veterans Health Administration, an interim report out today from the VA Office of Inspector General confirms that "inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic" throughout the system.

The report focused on the Phoenix VA, where the scandal started. But it also noted that, "to date, we have ongoing or scheduled work at 42 VA medical facilities and have identified instances of manipulation of VA data that distort the legitimacy of reported waiting times."

The report is mum about which other VA facilities have been implicated in "inappropriate scheduling" and/or "manipulation of VA data," so we don't know yet if the West Los Angeles or Long Beach VA's are being investigated. But as one Impatient reader tell us, seeking care at both facilities is time-consuming and frustrating.

Takes more than being a 'genius'

As a "genius" at the Manhattan Beach Apple store, Lance MacNiven can solve your most vexing technological problems. But he can’t solve a problem in his own life: The wait times at the Veterans Affairs medical centers in West L.A. and Long Beach.

"When I call for an appointment, it's always been weeks," MacNiven said, before correcting himself. "It's never been weeks; it's always been months."

'Motrin, water and sleep'

MacNiven served in the US Navy from 2006 to 2010. He worked in IT aboard the USS Port Royal, a guided missile cruiser based in Pearl Harbor. At sea, he said, the common prescription for any ailment was "Motrin, water and sleep."

"Most veterans know that," he said. "They just get used to a lot of pain, because we don’t have a full-on doctor out there."

‘Deal with the pain’

Out of the service, things are hardly different, he said. MacNiven, 25, says he is forced to endure discomfort as he waits to see a doctor or specialist at the VA.

Once, he recalled, he was suffering from weeks of insomnia, and only sleeping with the aid of Nyquil and Tylenol PM. When he went to the Long Beach VA center, he was referred to a sleep clinic, but could not get an appointment for two months.

"The insomnia was stressful enough," he said. "The fact that I couldn’t be seen or get help for it, made it even more stressful."

In urgent situations, he’s gone to the VA emergency room. When he sprained his ankle, said MacNiven, he got an X-ray, crutches and medication, adding that he was told to call his primary doctor if it still hurt a week later.

It still hurts, but MacNiven said he never called, because he assumed that he would not get an appointment for months.

"I pretty much have to just deal with the pain until it becomes unbearable, and then hit the ER again for some meds," he told Impatient.

Richard Beam, a spokesman for the Long Beach VA, said MacNiven should have been able to see his doctor within 14 days.

"When our patients come to us and tell us, 'here’s what I need,' we’ve been able to make things work within days of finding out there’s an issue," he said.

He said if MacNiven simply didn't attempt to schedule an appointment out of frustration with the system, then that's the VA’s failure.

"The burden shouldn't be on him, the burden should be on us to make sure he has access to appropriate care," Beam said.

It is important to note that long wait times are nothing new in the VA system. The VA Inspector General's office pointed out in its report that since 2005, it has issued 18 reports "that identified, at both the national and local levels, deficiencies in scheduling resulting in lengthy waiting times."

Dirty laundry

MacNiven said he prefers the Long Beach medical center to the one in West L.A., recalling the time he went to the West L.A. center with a sprained thumb.

"I was put in a check-up room that still had bloody sheets from the previous patient," he said. "The doctor quickly moved me from this room and ordered a cleanup."

Officials at the West L.A. VA have not yet responded to requests for comment. Stay tuned.

‘Something needs to change’

In the fall, MacNiven will enter UCLA’s graduate school. At that point, he will also look into other health insurance options for himself and his wife.

"Going through the VA healthcare system is very stressful," he said. "I’m 25 years old and I can see the problems with the system. I can't imagine what older veterans with more severe issues have to deal with. Something needs to change."

He wishes that the VA would partner with private health systems, so veterans could have improved access to care. (In fact, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki recently announced that more veterans will be able to get care at private hospitals and clinics.)

In the meantime, this young veteran will continue to endure the pain – and take his medical questions to the Internet, as he did to treat his insomnia.

"I just used Google" to find different ways to fall asleep at night, said MacNiven. 

If you're a veteran, what’s your experience with the VA medical centers, good or bad? Perhaps you have a relative or friend who's a vet who has dealt with long wait times. You can respond in the comment section, or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org.