COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- Nine years ago, reports of veterans dying while waiting for care led to a big shake-up within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or VA.
That crisis was largely resolved, but today the VA faces other serious challenges, like a shortage of staff in Southern Colorado where the veteran population is expanding rapidly.
To find out what's working in this region, and what's not, KRDO sat down with a group of four veterans who served overseas from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
It might come as a surprise, but all four said their experience with the VA has been positive.
VFW Post 101 Commander Jay Maloney says, “They speak to me as a person. They step out of their job to help me.”
VFW Colorado Legislative Director Steve Kjonaas adds, "The culture of the people is pretty widespread like that. You know, I feel real good about that."
"They're very accommodating," says Marlene Cabrera, who served in numerous conflicts including Operation Iraqi Freedom.
VFW Post 6461 Commander Travis Baker says, “I've had nothing but great, great experience at Floyd Lindstrom."
However, they agree that sometimes, there's just not enough of it locally.
“For a while, I had to go to Denver, Aurora, for my specialist,” explained Cabrera.
“I've driven all the way to darn Greeley,” added Baker, “or to the Aurora Anschutz campus.”
For a long time, veterans were forced to travel to other medical centers, or wait months to see a doctor within the VA system.
But the Choice Act in 2014 and the Mission Act in 2018 allowed veterans to go outside the VA whenever the wait time or the distance is too great.
This ability to see what's known as "community care providers" in other health systems has been good for patients, but not as good for the VA and taxpayers, according to the VA's Health Director for Eastern Colorado, Michael Kilmer.
Kilmer says last year alone, the VA spent $2 million on optometry and ophthalmology services outside the VA in Southern Colorado.
Another $3.8 million was spent on mental health community care providers.
$8 million went toward geriatric care outside the VA.
"We still have a shortage of health care providers,” says Kilmer.
The biggest reason for that is Covid-19, which has depleted the staff of healthcare providers nationwide.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough echoed that challenge during his recent visit to the Floyd Lindstrom clinic in Colorado Springs.
"We suffer the same challenges the every health care system suffers."
McDonough confirmed the shortage is widespread.
"We need more mental health professionals… more primary care physicians… we need more nurses… medical support experts. We're open for business, we're recruiting, and we are very competitive.”
Killmer says the VA’s pay and benefits package is generous, and their retention rate is higher than most private companies.
However, the VA by law cannot offer the highest salary for a position in a particular area.
Killmer also wants to hire from outside the region whenever possible, not within.
"I don't want to steal from the local market. I don't want to be robbing Peter to pay Paul, because the VA is a part of this community, and we need to help the entire community thrive,” he says.
Unfortunately, time is not on his side, because the veteran population isn't slowing down.
“In the next 6-10 years, this market is projected to be larger in the veteran population than the Denver market,” says Kilmer.
To accommodate this growing demand, the VA is adding a second floor to its clinic at 3920 Union in Colorado Springs.
It is also opening up a new clinic inside part of the building at 1365 Garden of the Gods, as well as another new clinic at 565 Space Center, near Powers and Platte.
When asked whether the VA can adequately staff those facilities, Kilmer said he has the staff to open them, but they are still working on filling them entirely.
Opening those new clinics is intended to “decompress” the main clinic on Fillmore, and make room for more specialty services.
Adding more specialty services will hopefully allow more veterans to not only stay within the VA but also stay in town.
Secretary McDonough hopes they will.
“Study after study shows when you're in our system, you do better,” he said.
The veterans who spoke with KRDO hope that other veterans whose opinions of the v-a might not be as positive give it another shot.
“Do what you do. See what you see. And form your opinion,” says Maloney.
“Give it a chance,” adds Baker, “If it fails for you, then you can determine that it failed you. Don't let somebody else's opinion make it fail you.
Local veterans as well as the VA both encouraged all veterans to enroll in the VA system.
Much of the local VA's funding is based on how many veterans are enrolled here, regardless of whether they are actively receiving care from the VA.