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300 Montana veterans wait for orthopedic surgery as VA tries to recruit surgeon

By CINDY UKEN Of The Gazette Staff | Posted: Saturday, August 6, 2011 12:30 am

CASEY PAGE/Gazette StaffRobert Wombolt shows a letter that he received from the Veterans Affairs hospital at Fort Harrison explaining that his hip replacement surgery would be postponed. He received the letter in March and is still waiting for the surgery.

At least 300 Montana veterans who need orthopedic surgery are on a waiting list while the Department of Veterans Affairs Montana Health Care System works to recruit a full-time surgeon to help ease the growing backlog of disabled — and often disgruntled — veterans.

To receive surgery, Montana veterans without private insurance must travel out of state for care or pay for it out of their pockets. To compound this problem, Montana veterans are being told that the VA facilities in Denver and Salt Lake City are too busy to accept Montana patients. Subsequently, they are being placed on a waiting list that is approaching two years.

Robert Wombolt, a 77-year-old U.S. Air Force Korean War veteran, is on the growing waiting list.

The Billings resident had three knee surgeries beginning in November 2009 and was told that he would also need his left hip replaced. With that, his wait began. At one point, Wombolt said, he was No. 20 on the waiting list.

On March 1, his wait became indefinite after receiving a letter from Dr. Philip P. Alford, chief of surgical service at the VA Hospital in Fort Harrison, which is about 250 miles from Billings.

“We regret to inform you that your upcoming orthopedic surgery will need to be postponed,” Alford’s letter said. “… Someone will be contacting you in the near future with further information to insure you receive the orthopedic care you need.”

Wombolt still waits. He’s heard nothing.

“It’s been so long I think they forgot me,” Wombolt said.

On a pain-intensity scale from zero to 10, Wombolt said his pain averages from seven to nine. His walk is more of a shuffle and he can’t navigate long distances. Wombolt has no idea where he is on the waiting list and fears talking about it publicly will shove him further toward the bottom.

“I’m just disgusted with the VA,” Wombolt said. “You call and you just get the runaround. It’s a waste of time.”

Tired of the wait, Wombolt has contacted U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Tester has assured Wombolt that he will look into his concerns.

The waiting list of veterans is due primarily to a shortage of staff at the VA Hospital in Fort Harrison, according to Tester’s office. The hospital has been searching for an orthopedic surgeon to replace Dr. Peter Wendt, who retired and hasn’t operated since March 18.

There were two orthopedic surgeons on staff, but Wendt was the only one who performed hip and knee replacement surgery. Veterans were already waiting their turn on the operating table while Wendt was on staff. His absence has only exacerbated the problem.

VA Montana has received several applications for the position, which pays between $97,988 and $375,000 and includes a generous benefits package. But no one has yet been hired, according to Tester’s office.

The burgeoning backlog has caught the attention of both Tester and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. The topic dominated much of an hourlong session Tester and Shinseki held with more than 100 veterans in July. Since then, the drumbeat of discontent has grown louder.

In a tersely worded letter to Shinseki, Tester said, “This situation is completely unacceptable and it’s getting worse.”

Tester implored Shinseki to provide as much assistance and guidance as necessary and urged the VA to more aggressively pursue fee-basis care that would allow the needs of veterans to be addressed locally and in a more timely manner.

“Further delaying or denying care for veterans whose conditions worsen each day is an outcome I cannot accept,” Tester said. “With more and more troops returning home and in need of care, the inability of the VA to recruit and retain quality doctors and surgeons has to become a higher priority.”

Shinseki has received the letter and in July promised veterans that getting them access to quality health care is a priority.

While VA Montana continues its search for a surgeon, it is taking other steps to address veterans’ needs. At the end of August, VA Montana will begin a three-year pilot program called Project ARCH, Access Received Closer to Home. Billings has been chosen as one of five sites nationwide for the pilot project. ARCH will contract with Billings medical providers to deliver care not available at VA Montana.

Veterans in the Billings area awaiting orthopedic surgery will be contacted by a VA representative to discuss their eligibility for the pilot and other care options through VA. If veterans agree to participate in Project ARCH, and they are eligible, they will be referred to the program. The contracted provider has 14 days to schedule an appointment with their network providers, and subsequently schedule the surgery in the community.

Meantime, Wombolt said he doesn’t have much confidence in the VA. He is putting his faith in Tester.

“I will just wait and hope,” Wombolt said.

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

Read more: http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/article_6a3b2018-8ecd-58e8-8b12-ac4d9d65d348.html#ixzz1UJgaeqET