- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - The overseer of federal outpatient clinics for veterans in central Illinois said sudden short staffing at the Springfield site is posing “unprecedented” challenges in meeting patient demands as the nation’s Veterans Affairs system faces questions about long wait times in delivering care.

Dr. Dexter Hazlewood, chief of the VA Illiana Health Care System’s outpatient clinics, said two doctors have left the Springfield clinic over the summer, putting that site “in a very, very challenged position” at a time when it has the same or greater patient demand.

But Hazlewood told The (Springfield) State Journal-Register (http://bit.ly/1sLfTbD ) that he does not believe any patient conditions have worsened because of the vacancies and related delays in appointments. Hazelwood said that while the recent staffing shortage has drawn complaints from some of the clinic’s 5,000 to 6,000 patients, most of them appear understanding of the situation.

“A shortage of this extent is unusual and not anything anticipated,” he said. “We practice what we call ‘veteran-centric’ care. The veteran is at the center of what we do. The vast majority of veterans are very pleased with their care.”

U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, a Peoria Republican whose district includes part of the Springfield area, is working with five to 10 veterans upset with access and quality-of-care issues related to the Springfield VA site.

“We have a concerning number of open cases involving the Springfield clinic,” and the veterans’ concerns have been conveyed to VA officials, said Benjamin Cole, a senior adviser to Schock.

The Danville-based Illiana system also includes clinics in Peoria, Decatur, Mattoon and Indiana’s West Lafayette.

Two of the 14-year-old clinic’s doctors cited family issues in leaving that site in recent months, Hazlewood said. The VA has since offered jobs to two doctors as possible replacements, he said, but background checks and other required paperwork could delay their arrival at the Springfield location for two to four months.

Donald Stewart, a 66-year-old Auburn man and Army veteran who lost his right eye in combat during the Vietnam War, said his care at the Springfield clinic was better than average, though “it could be better.”

“They just need more help,” said Stewart, a Purple Heart recipient who gets care and prescriptions through the clinic for high blood pressure, stomach problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s disease.

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Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com

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