- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Veterans needing medical help with health problems stemming from their military service will be scheduled first for nonemergency appointments under new rules announced yesterday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Appointments for such veterans must be scheduled within 30 days of the request. When an appointment is unavailable, the VA must arrange for care at another VA facility or contract for out for it, VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said in a statement.

Any veteran needing emergency care still will be treated immediately.

The new rule changes a policy in which veterans with service-connected health issues, such as a war injury or certain cancers related to Agent Orange exposure and who are not severely disabled, waited with other veterans for appointments.

Last October, Mr. Principi gave priority for appointments to veterans with 50 percent or more disability ratings. Such severely disabled veterans also get priority for nonservice-related health problems.

“If a veteran cannot see a doctor in a timely manner, then we have failed that veteran,” Mr. Principi said.

Veterans have been enduring waits of up to two years for appointments since demand increased after the VA opened its medical facilities to all veterans in 1998. The VA said it has made some progress toward reducing wait times. Mr. Principi hoped that by the end of 2003, veterans would need to wait no more than 30 days to see a primary care physician.

Phil Budahn, a VA spokesman, said that in July 2002 more than 300,000 veterans had been waiting more than six months for primary care appointments at VA institutions. The list has dropped to about 30,000, he said.

John Brieden, the American Legion’s national commander, said the new rule shows that the VA health care system is so burdened that it cannot handle the demand and should get more money.

“What they are doing is admitting they can’t do it for everybody they are supposed to do it for, so they must put priority on some folks and tell others, ‘Gee, we can’t see you right now,’” Mr. Brieden said.

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