The Topeka Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center has not been implicated in the waiting-list scandal unfolding across the country.
But on Friday, two Republican members of the Kansas congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, said their offices have fielded numerous complaints from veterans in recent months about long-standing appointments being canceled or rescheduled at the last minute.
“That’s a different way of trying to avoid evidence of a long list or a waiting time for veterans to access care,” said Moran, after touring the Topeka facility with Jenkins. “That’s a harder one to prove. There’s no evidence, there’s no list that demonstrates that. But we’ll be pursuing that with the veterans who have had that conversation with us.”
Jenkins, whose 2nd District includes Topeka, said the number of veterans contacting her office with similar complaints about scheduling appointments has increased sharply in recent months.
“It’s a pattern,” she said. “You hear it once, you’re concerned. You hear it twice, you grow more concerned. But we have heard it so many times.”
Jim Gleisberg, a spokesman for the medical center, was standing nearby when Moran and Jenkins raised the issue with reporters.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Gleisberg said. “You can only correct a problem when you know there’s a problem. Now I know there is a possible problem. And we’re going to look into it.”
Jenkins said she found it hard to believe that officials at Colmery-O’Neil weren’t aware of the issue.
“We have been in constant communication with the folks here,” Jenkins said, adding that she had also raised the issue with former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki before he resigned.
“I wrote a letter to him (Shinseki) earlier this year and got a response that was not satisfactory,” she said. “I think these issues are systemic. There is work to be done here.”
Jenkins and Moran later met privately with A. Rudy Klopfer, director of the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, with includes Colmery-O’Neil and the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth.
One of the hospitalized veterans visited by Moran and Jenkins said he thinks any problems with the VA health care system are being overblown by the media. Bob Brown, 87, served in World War II as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps. In the hospital for a life-threatening infection, Brown said he has never had a problem getting care when he needed it.
“This is a wonderful facility,” he said to a gaggle of reporters crowded around his bed. “The VA is doing a hell of a good job.”
Both Moran and Jenkins said they planned to continue focusing on correcting problems in the VA system. The first step, they said, was getting a strong leader to head the department, preferably someone from outside the system.
“I do believe that leadership matters and who is in charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs is important,” Moran said.
Locally, Moran said getting the emergency room at Colmery-O’Neil reopened is a priority. It was downgraded to an urgent care center in January because of staffing issues.
“I’ve read in the press that the physicians are hired (who are) necessary to open the emergency room, and we’re waiting for approval from the VA in Washington, D.C.,” Moran said, adding that he intended to do whatever he could to speed the approval process.
Jim McLean is executive editor of KHI News Service, an editorially independent reporting program of the Kansas Health Institute.