TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — During a recent two-year span, Veterans Affairs facilities in the Tampa Bay area seemed nearly perfect in scheduling primary care appointments within the required 20-day wait time window. But skeptics believe the data indicates the agency is not following federal law.
From Jan. 1, 2020, through last August, only nine out of 106,000 Community Care patients in the Bay Pines and James Haley VA networks were given primary care appointments with civilian doctors, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Community Care Choice Act was passed by Congress in 2014 after several veterans died while waiting on secret lists for medical in what became known as the Phoenix scandal. But in the years that followed, the VA was blamed for manipulating wait times by starting the clock on the “patient preferred date,” which was actually a date created by the VA, not the patient.
Congress passed the Mission Act in 2019, which states wait times need to be calculated starting on the patient’s “date of request.”
Darin Selnick, a senior advisor for Concerned Veterans for America, helped write the Mission Act. He does not believe it is possible that only nine out of 106,000 Tampa Bay area primary care patients qualified to go outside the VA.
“That only leads to one conclusion. They’re not offering it,” Selnick said. “The numbers that you’re producing? Veterans are getting left behind. They’re getting delayed care. It definitely is costing lives.”
Army veteran Kevin Cramer said he and his wife Angela were told by Bay Pines VA personnel that primary care is not part of Community Care.
Cramer said he was dangerously close to regular blasts when he served in Afghanistan and came home with a number of issues including dizziness and severe migraines.
“I start passing out – and the dizzy spells,” Cramer said. “It got to the point I can’t drive anymore.”
A VA facility in Texas is blamed for missing a mass on Cramer’s brain in 2013. But a civilian doctor found it after a 2019 MRI and blamed the growth for the Lutz resident’s medical problems.
Cramer did eventually get a primary care doctor through the VA, but he is still waiting for a surgeon from the Community Care network to remove the mass on his brain.
“I just want to get the help I need and just move on with my life,” Cramer said.
Paul Russo runs the show for Bay Pines, but he declined an interview request. A spokesperson said data shows veterans are choosing the VA for primary care.
Selnick doubts the VA’s conclusion.
“By [Bay Pines’] own data, the average wait time is longer than 20 days,” Selnick said. “How is that possible if so few are referred outside the VA? It’s not believable and we see this sort of thing throughout the country.”
Sources within the VA have said the agency fears Community Care because it will lead to cuts in funding and potentially privatizing the $243 billion agency that serves about 9 million veterans a year at an average cost of $27,000 per patient.
The Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group funded by Charles Koch, is suing the VA in an attempt to force transparency with wait time data.
Cramer went to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for help with his medical dilemma and for answers and action.
“It depends on why it isn’t being implemented better,” Rubio said when asked what Congress can do to force the VA to better implement the Mission Act. “If it’s because the people in charge of implementing aren’t doing a good job, the VA Accountability Act allows you to remove those people.”
But Russo still holds his job, Cramer still has a mass in his brain and the stats indicate Bay Pines has potentially closed the door on veterans hoping for help outside the VA.
“I was really shocked,” Cramer said. “I thought the doctors were looking out for me.”
The total number of Tampa Bay area Community Care patients may point to another issue. According to data obtained by 8 On Your Side last year, less than eight percent of local VA patients were offered Community Care.