DURHAM, N.C. — Andrew Danecki, a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, suffers from sleep apnea that left him nodding off on the sofa and behind the wheel of his car. He said he waited eight months to get a sleep study performed at the Durham VA Medical Center.
Dennis Hunter, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, waited several months for an orthopedic appointment for knee and back injuries that require him to use a wheelchair.
The Durham VA Medical Center had the longest average wait time for new patient mental health appointments — 104 days — in a nationwide audit of veterans’ health care facilities released this month. The hospital also had the nation’s seventh worst average wait times for new patient specialist care appointments: 69 days.
“I feel like they just don’t know what they’re doing, and don’t really care,” said Danecki, 27. “It’s like vets get health care for free, so why should they do their best work?”
North Carolina’s four main VA hospitals struggle under demands from one of the largest veteran communities in the nation — about 770,000, many living near large military bases such as Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The Durham VA served 64,000 patients last year, and to many veterans, the facility seems impenetrable when it comes to getting specialty care.
“They have so many problems here, I don’t know where to start,” said Hunter, 68, perched on his wheelchair in a crowded waiting room inside the red-brick hospital in downtown Durham.
Officials at Durham have challenged the national audit’s methodology, saying that more than half of new mental health patients were actually seen within 14 days this fiscal year, with new patients waiting an average of 25 days for their first appointment.
“We are heading in the right direction and have already made significant improvements,” said DeAnne Seekins, the Durham VA director.