SEMINOLE — Compliments are up. A backlog of benefits claims is down.
That was the message from Department of Veterans Affairs officials who held a town hall meeting at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center on Wednesday where they emphasized the positive and largely sidestepped discussion about recent controversies that have dogged the agency.
The meeting, and others like it held across the nation, are part of the VA's response to calls for improved communication with veterans in the wake of one of the worst scandals in the agency's history.
The VA has been rocked by allegations of wrongful deaths caused by delayed medical care to VA facilities that fudged performance measures.
The closest VA officials came to touching on anything controversial in their prepared statements to some 60 veterans came when Kerrie Witty, the director of the VA's regional office in Seminole, acknowledged veterans were waiting too long for decisions in their claims for benefits.
"We still have a lot of work ahead of us," Witty said. "And we know that. We're working hard to get better."
She said disability claims in the region that includes most of Florida, parts of Georgia and the Caribbean have been reduced from 52,000 in March 2013 to 35,000. And while veterans are still waiting an average of 160 days for a claims decision, Witty noted that is 85 days shorter than it was 18 months ago.
So far this fiscal year, the region has processed 6,000 more claims than at the same time a year ago, Witty said.
Suzanne Klinker, director of the Young VA, said the hospital, one of the nation's busiest VA facilities, is widely recognized as providing superior health care. She said the facility had contacted 6,000 veterans in recent months to offer speedier appointments.
"Along with national recognition, we have also experienced a huge increase in the number of compliments received from veterans, their families and friends on their experiences at the medical center and patient clinics," Klinker said.
The VA counts the compliments — more than 1,200 this fiscal year, she said.
Some veterans who attended the event offered complaints on everything from rude VA employees and unanswered phone calls to treatment delays. The Young VA had employees at the ready to start investigating those problems immediately.
Carter Reid, 82, of Pinellas Park said he was told it would take from six months to several years to schedule an operation to correct his cataracts. He said a VA employee suggested he utilize Medicare for treatment elsewhere.
"Why should I have to wait five years to read those signs in front of you?" he said. "I may die in the next two or three years."
Army veteran James Holloman said he has been waiting 819 days for a resolution of his "dependency claim" to add stepchildren to his VA benefits package.
"Is it the policy of the (VA) to ignore all other claim types in order to focus on the backlog of disability claims?" he asked.
"No, that is not the policy," said Witty. "And I apologize that you have waited 819 days."
She said there are 12,000 pending dependency claims and that the average wait time is 336 days. "However, 336 days is not something we're proud of," Witty said.
Air Force veteran Ed Moody, 70, of Pinellas Park said he was concerned about the brief exams he and other veterans are given by VA doctors to determine whether they deserve a disability pension.
Moody said his exam was four to five minutes.
"How can a doctor send the people upstairs a report on you … if you're only in that exam room for five minutes?" he said.
Young VA chief of staff Dominique Thuriere said doctors are not doing a complete physical in assessing a disability, only judging a specific condition or part of the body. So the exams need not be lengthy, she said.
A town hall at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in north Tampa is being held at 3:30 p.m. today in the auditorium on the second floor of the main hospital building.
Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.