HONOLULU - Veterans told U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono that they face a shortage of doctors on Maui, Molokai and the Big Island, which has contributed to the long wait times they endured seeking medical treatment across the island chain.
Vietnam veteran Victor Craft called the Veterans Affairs problems a "train wreck in slow motion" at a Tuesday hearing on Oahu hosted by Hirono for the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
"There are those who say it will take a generation to fix the problems at VA, and that is unacceptable," Craft said.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (left) hosts a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in Honolulu on Tuesday.
Capt. Elisa Smithers of the Hawaii Army National Guard said she was denied treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and told that because she was a woman, what she saw in combat could not have been that bad. While going without treatment, she was having violent outbursts and thoughts of suicide, she said.
"I was sleeping in a closet to curb my anxiety," Smithers said. "I also at one point threw my daughter into a glass window, because she had woken me up in my sleep and I thought I was being attacked by another male soldier."
Hawaii had the longest wait time in the nation for new patients trying to get in to see a primary care physician. Wait times for new patients to see a primary care physician were reduced from 145 days to 45 days, said Col. Ronald Han, director of Hawaii's Office of Veterans Services.
Two health technician positions are unfilled on Maui, and Molokai veterans have missed appointments because they couldn't get flights to facilities, said Cummins Kameeiamoku Mahoe III, representing Molokai veterans. "Federal policies where usually one size fits all do not work here in the middle of the Pacific," he said.
Some veterans on Neighbor Islands also have suffered from not getting reimbursed for travel to appointments, he said.
Hirono pushed officials to explain what they've done to address the problems.
The VA has been enhancing staff on each island and hiring more support staff so doctors can spend more productive time with patients, said Wayne Pfeffer, director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System.
"Our wait list every day is coming down and hopefully will be eliminated in the near future," Pfeffer said.
Replacing doctors who leave takes longer in Hawaii, said Fred Ruge of the Maui Veterans Council.
Pfeffer said that interested candidates often are lost to other opportunities because the hiring process takes too long.
"We're looking at any incentives we can to hire new physicians," Pfeffer said.
A bill recently signed into law includes funding to hire more health providers, Hirono said.
"The change in the law that allows Mr. Pfeffer to directly recruit people, that's going to be more helpful," Hirono said. "We have to stay the course."