SD Veterans group says program at Sioux Falls VA Hospital is in crisis

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Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 9:18 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -Representatives from six South Dakota Veterans organizations that make up the SD Veterans council met in Pierre Wednesday with Simoneau, regarding complaints that there are serious delays in booking appointments with the Care in the Community Program.

Council President Connie Johnson is calling the situation a crisis, saying veterans need quicker referrals for medical care.

“Veterans in our community that need treatment for drugs and alcohol for mental health, they’re dying,” said Johnson.

The Care in the Community Program was designed to allow Veterans to receive care outside of the VA system, but the call center is overwhelmed with requests. The delay in response prompted a no-confidence letter regarding Sioux Falls VA director Lisa Simoneau, followed by a meeting in Pierre on Wednesday.

“The council we were very pleased that Lisa made the time to come to our South Dakota Veterans Council meeting,” said Johnson.

Simoneau declined an interview but did provide the following statement:

“I traveled to Pierre to meet with the SD Veterans Council and was warmly received. I provided an update on Care in the Community highlighting the strengths and challenges of our program and what is within local control. Sioux Falls VA Health Care System schedules 88.4% of consultations within 14 days of receipt, well above the national VA average of 72%. We have also reduced our hold time for calls to the Scheduling Call Center by 35% despite our challenges hiring schedulers in the current strained job market in Sioux Falls. I authorized recruitment incentives of $3,000 for new schedulers in addition to our generous benefits package to make us more competitive. Regarding the Valet program, the decision to discontinue the contract was made by previous leadership before my arrival and I reauthorized the program through an emergency contract which restarted Valet. There are no plans to discontinue this service and a dedicated valet station is included in our plans to rebuild our front lobby. I look forward to our continued partnership with the SD Veterans Council.”

“Appointments are supposed to be made within 48 hours,” says Johnson.

Other documentation indicates a goal of 72 hours to have a booking completed.

Waiting could be life-threatening. Recently, two suicides have taken place on the VA campus, one just outside the claims office. Johnson does acknowledge personal responsibility for Veterans to approach the ER while in crisis, however one of the suicides was a patient who had been discharged. Johnson claims there was no follow-up care.

“To me when it comes to a veteran that is in mental health or physical crisis, it doesn’t matter if you’re low staffed those calls and those appointments should be being made,” said Johnson.

Marty Pennock from the DAV and the council wonders if calls are prioritized.

“From my foxhole, they’re way understaffed,” said Pennock.

He is concerned if the incoming calls are prioritized or triaged.

“If they’re life-threatening, you know, they’re in pain. I’m hoping those are getting addressed,” said Pennock.

The council wants to clarify, the staff is great. It’s the management and national mandates causing frustration.

“Staff that is extremely dedicated and professional,” said Pennock.

“And they are great at the VA,” said Johnson.

Simoneau’s statement at their meeting that they’re trying to hire more staff within six weeks is not good enough.

“Well, how many deaths is that in six weeks, or how many people are giving up in six weeks? We don’t have six weeks,” said Johnson.

In addition to the calls, are the faxes from doctors awaiting approval for additional treatment like chemotherapy, heart surgery, and knee replacement surgery. Our I-team is told the only way to move up in priority is an angry doctor calling to follow up, and staff digging through thousands of faxes to find the request. Some facilities do the procedures without approval, causing the veteran to foot the bill.

“Because you’re understaffed doesn’t give a right for somebody to die,” said Johnson.

Senator Rounds says he’s contacting national directors:

“Historically, the VA Health System in South Dakota has received high marks on the quality of care. The dedicated men and women who care for our nation’s heroes are due our respect and support. However, in recent months, we have seen a number of veterans’ health concerns in the southeast region of South Dakota.

In addition, I believe recent legislative action has created challenges for the quality of care for our veterans. Specifically, the MISSION Act was passed in D.C. and signed into law in 2018. I opposed it and expressed concerns that it would force our veterans to get care at a VA facility instead of a healthcare facility of their choosing.

South Dakota is a big state, and we have a lot of miles between VA healthcare access points. Veterans need to have the ability to choose between the VA and a local healthcare provider close to home. This should be a veteran’s decision, not a bureaucrat’s decision. We secured provisions to protect our South Dakota veterans’ access to Care in the Community, but I worry that some administration officials are interpreting the MISSION Act differently, restricting veterans from accessing their local physician. As I told VA Secretary McDonough last month during a Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Care in the Community is an issue and one that I intend to actively work on. Our veterans deserve it.”

Another pressing issue addressed by the Council involved the removal of the kiosk where veterans could apply for and receive travel reimbursement. According to Johnson, Simoneau revealed it was a national mandate from the National Veterans Administration, and she had no control. Elderly Veterans are now forced to go online or download an app for reimbursement. Another option is contacting the County Veteran representative for assistance.

The regional director, Robert McDivitt, is planning a visit to Sioux Falls in April to review the program.

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