El Paso, TX (KDBC) — It started in Phoenix -- but a Veteran’s Affairs scandal may be rocking the Borderland as a new study is revealing some troubling problems at El Paso’s VA. According to the study, a veteran in El Paso will wait an average of 71 days to see a mental health provider. This is a stark contrast to what the is VA is claiming. They say a veteran will see a provider within 14 days. One woman who lost her son just months ago says these long wait times are a matter of life and death.
"And he didn't deserve the care that he got. I should say the care that he didn't get,” Bonnie D'Amico, tells us. D’Amico holds her son, Nick, close to her heart. She claims he struggled with depression for years. The New York native even moved to El Paso to help him cope and got him an appointment with the VA. "We got a call from the VA that the appointment was being cancelled and they made another one for him in another 2 months,” D’Amico says.
That appointment never happened. Nick's frustrations became too much to bear. In September of 2013 the Army Specialist took his life. "He drove off Transmountain. He couldn't wait any longer,” she says. Nick’s story is one echoed throughout the system.
Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s office paid for a study -- exploring possible problems at the El Paso VA. "We could no longer rely on the data the VA was publishing and reporting to us,” the U.S. Representative told reporters. 692 were surveyed about how long they've waited for care. "72-percent of those veterans requesting a non-mental health care appointment waited more than 14 days."
They found, veterans will wait weeks, months before seeing a doctor. "Just going for regular healthcare, I have yet to see the women's healthcare,” Melinda Russell claims. Russell is one of those veterans. The medically retired Army Chaplain says she suffers from PTSD -- and is still waiting to see a physician -- months after scheduling an appointment. "When I received my medical records from them, I found out that my appointments were cancelled by me,” she states. She claims she never cancelled the appointments.
The congressman is now investigating whether others also had their appointments cancelled by the VA and if so, why. Officials there declined with speak to us Thursday.
For now, the Congressman is planting the seeds of change in the VA -- starting with the Borderland. "Needs to start somewhere and it's going to start in El Paso,” D’Amico says.
The congressman says he will be introducing new legislation soon and will push for a nationwide study similar to the one done in El Paso. How he plans to pay for it? Freezing all bonuses for senior management within the VA.
As for El Paso’s VA, they released this statement: The men and women of the El Paso VA Health Care System are committed to providing the best care possible to the New Mexico and Texas Veterans who we proudly serve. We share Congressman O’Rourke’s concerns for ensuring timely access to the primary and mental health care that our Veterans have earned and deserve. We will not waver in our efforts to improve and we remain dedicated to providing exceptional health care to Veterans.
- John A. Mendoza, Director, El Paso VA Health Care System.