Veteran waits three months for appointment that VA says should take about two weeks

BALTIMORE - Edward Jolson doesn't need an audit from the VA to know the wait times can be unbearable. The 83-year-old is living it.

"As I'm thinking about it right now, I'm getting a little angry about it. And excuse me, I don't mean to be rude or crude, but these guys are getting screwed," Jolson said.

The Army veteran fought in the Korean War, but now it's a battle at home fighting for his health. He's been using the VA for primary care for a decade. But last month, he was told it would be September before he could get an appointment.

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"First appointment they could see us was on September 10 at 1:30 p.m.. He's a veteran. He didn't say, 'I can't fight for my country tomorrow, you have to wait three months,'" his daughter, Robyn Jolson, said.

Jolson says her father had open heart surgery less than a month ago and needs to see his primary care doctor to get the medication he needs.

"He has a primary care doctor within the VA. We also have a primary care doctor outside of the VA. Otherwise, he'd be dead," she said.

According to the VA, because Jolson isn't new to the system, the wait time shouldn't be an issue. The audit shows on average, new patients seeking primary care will wait 81 days . But the VA Maryland says existing patients should only be waiting about two weeks.

"A veteran who needs care can be seen today. So, any veteran who needs care new, established, coming from another state, another VA, if they need care, we give it to them right then and there," said Dr. Martin Garcia-Bañuel, Director of Manage Care Clinical Center with the VA Maryland Healthcare system.

According to the audit, Baltimore ranks fourth in the country for longest wait times for new patient primary care appointments.

"We have worked with them and we work with our leadership and we work with our frontline staff to find what that veteran needs and how we can give it to them," said Garcia-Bañuel.

In May, the Chief of Staff for the VA Maryland Healthcare System told ABC2 that problems in other cities were not an issue in Maryland.

"In two weeks, if it is not an urgent care. If it is an emergent or urgent case they can be seen that day," Dr. Adam Robinson said during a May In Focus interview. "As a matter of fact, we emphasize that to them. If they need to have follow up care through our emergency department, they can get an appointment on the same day or the next day."

Dr. Garcia-Buñuel says that is still true. "So, we have to talk about who are those patients. For established patients who are already seeing us here, we can get those patients in very quickly, and sometimes much less than two weeks."

But for Jolson, it means waiting months and holding onto hope that a slot opens up at the Loch Raven facility, any day, any time before his September appointment finally rolls around.

"It's unfair that you fight for your country, whatever war you're fighting in, and the government says, 'We'll take care of you, do not worry... blah blah blah.' And you say, 'Okay, all of my medication will be paid for by the government,' and all of a sudden you find out that's not so. And that's the crash that bothers me," Jolson said.

The VA acknowledges that the wait times are a problem, but they say they're not surprised; it's a challenge they face all the time.

They say if a patient can't wait, they direct them to appropriate care. Right now, they're keeping an eye on veterans on the wait list, increasing capacity with Saturday appointments, and adding more primary care teams. They didn't have an exact number of how many teams they plan to bring on, but said they'll continue the recruitment process until wait times are down to zero.