ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – An advocacy group believes a new Veterans Affairs wait time controversy is underway, preventing veterans in Florida and across the country from getting private sector health care services outlined in a recent law change.

The VA Mission Act enhanced Community Care by offering veterans a choice starting in June 2019 to go outside the VA under certain circumstances, including wait times of longer than 20 days for primary, mental and extended care, and 28 days for specialty services. 

The regulations also call for Community Care when a veteran has to travel too far to a VA facility.

St. Petersburg Air Force Veteran Jackie Turner received authorization in 2018 from the Bay Pines VA network to receive Community Care for remedial massage for a back injury.

“It helped me get away from my walker,” Turner said.

But after 24 sessions, it stopped with “no explanation,” according to Turner.

“Sometimes I just get so angry, I want to cry,” she said, fighting back tears. “I live by myself. And I have no one to help me do the things I need to do every day.”

Turner’s Community Care fell under the 2014 Choice Act that carried a 30-day wait time limit before outside services were offered.

But, according to Turner, she had to ask to receive private sector care.

“No one offered me anything,” Turner said, “until I pointed out the wait time was more than 30 days.”

Within weeks of being cut-off from the therapy, Turner again needed a walker to get around.

Inquiries to the VA for help or at least an explanation went unanswered, she said, until Wednesday when a patient advocate called her following questions to Bay Pines from 8 On Your Side.

“We’ll see if they help me,” Turner said. “I’m just sick of not getting the help. We can’t take care of our own people. It’s just ridiculous. It’s insane.”

Turner’s issues are sadly familiar to Concerned Veterans for America, according to the Jimmie Smith, the coalition director for the group’s Florida chapter.

“We believe this could be another Phoenix scandal for the VA,” Smith said.

More than 200 veterans across the country died waiting for appointments in the 2014 scandal that was first uncovered in the Phoenix VA.

Smith said the VA’s current record keeping lacks elements that would show whether the Mission Act is being followed.

The agency’s current “pending appointment” link reflects the outdated 30-day requirement and states that the clock starts on the “preferred date,” defined as the day “deemed clinically appropriate by a VA health care provider.”

“You would think it was the date preferred by the patient,” Turner said. “But it’s not.”

The old way would more than likely shrink the wait times and possibly cut off Community Care for some veterans.

The Mission Act changed the regulation to start the count from the date of request.

“The VA continues to use out-of-date information,” Smith said. “They continue to use the old benchmarks and we continue to see appointments canceled and pushed off.”

Smith, a former Florida state representative, emphasized delayed care is one of the elements that led to fatalities during the Phoenix scandal.

“When you tie the care specifically to the VA, you are denying the veteran the ability to quickly and timely get the care they need,” Smith said. “Which then means, you could potentially cost the life of a veteran.”

Requests to Haley VAMC and Bay Pines VAMC for wait times from the date of request and the number of Tampa Bay area veterans who were offered Community Care under the new regulations were referred to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) email address.

Bay Pines Public Information Officer Anna Hancock thanked Eight On Your Side for alerting the VA to Turner’s issues, but she said she could not talk about specifics of her case due to privacy regulations.

“Generally speaking,” Hancock said when asked about Community Care. “The care must be clinically appropriate in nature and based on the individual’s condition and care plan developed by the veteran’s health care provider or team.”