Casey Joyce Post 4380 Commander Marty Nell is in need of dental work. From inside the Plano Veterans of Foreign Wars post, however, the VFW member and former Marine does not expect to be seen by a dentist until at least February.
For Nell, the experience can be summed into one word: frustrating.
“I think the biggest thing about [the Veterans Affairs Office] is being able to get into it. It’s not like [making] an appointment with your doctor,” he said. “At the VA, you call to make an appointment and it’s 30 days, at least 30 days, before you can get in.”
Nell is one of many veterans throughout Collin County traveling to the Dallas VA Medical Center in south Dallas for treatment. Like Nell, many have expressed concern over travel expenses and extended appointment wait times.
To help offset the volume of patients seen daily at the Dallas center and other area facilities, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced in October the location for its new community-based outpatient clinic in Plano. The center will be located in vacant office space at 3804 W. 15th St., across from Medical Center of Plano.
The clinic is expected to open in May and will serve veterans in Collin and surrounding counties. It is expected to provide primary care, mental health care, telemedicine, laboratory and X-ray services.
The VA expects the clinic to serve nearly 6,000 veterans each year and will be staffed by at least five physicians, five registered nurses and five licensed vocational nurses as well as a phlebotomist to perform various blood testing services, pharmacist and social workers.
The workload will be closely monitored each year to identify the need for further expansion of specialty care services, according to the VA. Johnson, R-Plano, said the facility is the result of his efforts to address the needs of the region’s growing veteran population.
“I’ve been working on getting a local VA clinic in Collin County for several years now, and the new Plano VA clinic is finally becoming reality for two big reasons,” Johnson said. “There is a very real need in the community for a conveniently located veterans clinic. This is becoming a reality because of the hard work and determination from local champions [and] folks like Jeff Milligan, VA North Texas Health Care System director.”
The VA North Texas Health Care System is the federal department’s second-largest health care system. Currently, Collin County veterans must travel to the Sam Rayburn Memorial Veterans Center in Bonham in Fannin County or the Dallas hospital for specialized medical services. The health care system also has outpatient clinics in Fort Worth, Denton and Greenville.
A national audit of the VA in 2014 revealed internal manipulations in tracking patient wait times. According to the Nov. 17, 2014, Department of Veterans Affairs Performance and Accountability Report, the audit also revealed the use of obsolete scheduling software. In response to the audit’s findings, the VA suspended the use of the 14-day wait time standard and emphasized the importance of customer service and veteran feedback, according to the report. The VA also launched an initiative to address the extended wait times by adding staff to improve response to demand, and is in the process of updating its scheduling software.
While the Plano clinic will specialize in outpatient services and preventative care, those in need of specialty care can receive treatment closer to home with the VA’s Choice Program. The program, which was signed into law in July, works with local non-VA physician groups and hospitals with the goal of offsetting the VA’s demand for services.
“The VA works with community providers to ensure veterans receive timely care,” said Froylan Garza, public affairs officer for VA North Texas. “Veterans can certainly request to be seen close to home, and the VA will work to accommodate [that request]if that specialty care is not available within 30 days of the veteran’s clinically indicated date or if that veteran lives 40 miles from a VA point of access under the Choice Program.”
In addition to medical services, veterans also depend on local VFWs for guidance when it comes to finding and receiving the help they need. VFWs assign service officers to help new veterans enroll in the health care system and file for benefits.
Army veteran and Casey Joyce Post 4380 member Reggie Guiterrez spends his days off driving veterans to their medical appointments in south Dallas. He also schedules appointments in-person for other veterans, something he learned is much more effective than trying to navigate the VA’s automated telephone line. Guiterrez said he learned what he knows about the VA from the older veterans he met at the hospital over the years.
“Your disability at the VA is really what counts,” he said. “If you’re 20 percent [disabled], you’ll be the last person they see.”
The Plano post consists of 400 members from Collin County and beyond, representing veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War. The post was named after Army Ranger James Casey Joyce, a Plano native who was killed in action in Somalia in 1993.
The average age of VFW members seems to have decreased over the past 15 years from the 60-70 age range to late 40s and early 50s, Post Quartermaster Tim Dowding said. The post, like many others in the area, has introduced a wider range of live music and family-friendly events to cater to younger veterans.
“The Vietnam veterans are probably the most prevalent. We’re the World War II veterans [of this generation], if you will,” Dowding said. “We’re getting older.”
Zach Migura, Collin County Veteran Services appointed official, is also president of the Veterans County Service Officers Association of Texas. As an appointed official for Collin County, Migura helps local veterans file disability claims and assists them in finding other services offered by area nonprofit organizations. The county office also conducts community outreach events and makes house calls and nursing home visits to veterans who are unable to travel.
“There are a lot of transportation issues with veterans in Collin County who have to drive to Dallas, Bonham and Denton [for treatment],” Migura said. “The primary care is good, and I think [the Plano clinic] will have some mental health [services], but that’s not full-service.”
To help address Collin County’s needs, leaders of the local veteran community meet each month at the Plano American Legion. The Collin County Veterans Coalition welcome representatives from the VA, nonprofit organizations and congressional offices to discuss issues, such as mental health, disability claims and other veteran-related topics.
“Our goal is to make the whole process as efficient as possible,” Migura said. “We try to do everything, but sometimes just [helping veterans] understand their benefits is the most difficult [aspect of the experience].”