WILDWOOD -- Veterans rallied in front of the city’s Vietnam Memorial Wall on Friday to urge the Veterans Administration to improve their access to health care in South Jersey.
About 100 people held up signs and spoke about long waits for doctor visits, lengthy administrative battles to get acknowledgment of disabilities stemming from military service and ailments from Agent Orange they say are still being ignored.
"The V.A. has a saying, ‘deny, deny until the vet dies,’” U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Metchnik of Wildwood Crest said.
He served in the Air Cavalry in Vietnam in 1967 to ’68.
“I’m about to be a grandfather. I’m hearing stuff about Agent Orange that affects children and grandchildren. It scares the hell out of me,” he said.
“I’m not sure the V.A. is looking at answers enough.”
The treatment of veterans in South Jersey has gotten more attention since U.S. Navy veteran Charles Ingram III, 51, of Egg Harbor Township, set himself on fire and died outside the Northfield VA outpatient clinic on March 19. The clinic did not have weekend hours and was closed at the time.
The VA increased staffing at the clinic with additional behavioral health specialists.
Many veterans in Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties routinely travel to VA hospitals in Wilmington, Del., or Philadelphia.
“A veteran should not have to travel hours to obtain routine healthcare. They should not have to sit in a waiting room for hours to be seen,” said Harry Weimar, post commander for the American Legion in Wildwood. “We need a facility in Cape May County with qualified doctors to take care of veterans.”
In a statement, the Wilmington VA Medical Center said the average wait for behavioral health appointments is eight days in Cape May and Atlantic County and 4.5 days in Cumberland County.
Spokesman James A. Coty said veterans who are experiencing a crisis will have their needs addressed the same day.
"VA is committed to providing veterans access to timely, quality health care, where and when they need it," he said. "Providing same day access is one of the most important ways in which VA will improve services for veterans. Our pledge to veterans and their caregivers is that by the end of December 2016, veterans will be able to have their behavioral health and primary care needs addressed on the same day at all VHA medical centers."
John Mink, 71, of Stone Harbor and Haddon Township, served in Vietnam in 1969 and ’70 and now battles ischemic heart disease and prostate cancer. He had a heart attack at age 41.
“I personally have three symptoms related to my exposure to Agent Orange. The V.A. has treated me. It’s important to call attention to the fact that there’s still a long way to go,” he said.
Mink said he is worried that the dioxin he was exposed to through Agent Orange could lead to genetic health problems for his children and grandchildren.
“Government officials sometimes forget what happened 50 years ago. But there’s a growing body of proof,” he said.
Veterans held up signs reading “PTSD Silent Killer” and “Agent Orange Kills Veterans.”
Nancy Wesley, of Wildwood, joined the rally in honor of her late husband, Alvin.
“He served at Fort Dix. He was one of the lucky ones. He didn’t get shipped out,” she said.
“The V.A. isn’t taking care of our vets as they should be. And I think it’s still going on with the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Make sure they can get well again,” she said.
SueAnn Casey, of Wildwood, attended to support her husband, John, who served in the U.S. Navy.
“The veterans need a lot of help. It’s sad they have to wait months for appointments. And psychiatrists never call them back. It’s a disgrace the way they treat veterans,” Casey said.
Veterans made nearly 58 million appointments at VA hospitals and clinics from July of 2015 to July of 2016. This represented more than 1 million more appointments than it scheduled in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
The VA is moving to same-day access to primary care and mental-health services when it is medically necessary, the report said. But according to the report released this month by the Joint Commission, just 39 facilities nationwide provide same-day care.
The VA initiated the study with the accreditation agency to examine complaints from veterans across the country in 2014 about long wait times for medical care.
The Joint Commission found that two-thirds of VA hospitals or clinics examined had at least one shortcoming that needed a follow-up. Among the issues: processes that could lead to delays in a patient’s diagnosis and care.
Nationwide, the commission found 225 areas that needed improvement among the VA’s 139 medical facilities and 47 community-based outpatient clinics.
The commission recommended the continued monitoring of scheduling and appointments; developing a process to track referrals out of the VHA network; building greater patient engagement in all aspects of care and sharing best practices, among others.
Subsequent surveys this year of 57 clinics and medical centers found nearly all had addressed the deficiencies identified in earlier surveys.
“Staffing continued to be a challenge in this area but as new staff was hired, the wait times for appointments were more effectively addressed,” the report found.