MILWAUKEE -- — At the start of the pandemic, thousands of in-person visits at VA clinics in Wisconsin were canceled. That created a big backlog, which has hardly budged.
Months into this health crisis and the men and women who served our country are faced with long wait times as they make appointments for elective surgeries and other specialists like optometrists, cardiologists, or dermatologists.
"We are working as quickly as we can. We are prioritizing the visits," said Dr. Michael Erdmann, Chief of Staff at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
During the week of Oct. 5, the I-Team checked wait times for in-person new patient appointments at A. Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center at 5000 W. National Avenue in Milwaukee.
Check wait times at VA clinics in Wisconsin or anywhere else in the country by clicking here.
While primary care and mental health appointments were around a week, Cardiology was at 38 days. Optometry 127 days, which is about four months.
"Is that an acceptable time?" the I-Team's Kristin Byrne asked Dr. Erdmann.
"We are trying to always improve on that and that's part of making up for that backlog," he said.
"Our goal is to have them all under 30 days," he continued.
Doctor Erdmann says this has nothing to do with staffing shortages. Instead, VA clinics can't be running at the capacity they were before. As COVID-19 cases surge in Wisconsin, he says some veterans just don't want to go in.
"We've heard that from many of our patients that they're still quite frightened of coming into our healthcare setting because they're afraid they might get COVID," said Dr. Erdmann.
Turning to telehealth seems like a logical solution. Since the start of the pandemic, it's been available for veterans. But, VA data shows it isn't as popular with veterans as one might think.
"Only about ten percent of our veterans are enrolled in the virtual program called VA Video Connect," said Dr. Mary Ellis, the Lead Telehealth Physician at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
Doctor Ellis wants veterans to know all they need to do is ask their primary care doctor at the VA about video visits. If a person isn't tech-savvy, there's help available. Family members can also join in on sessions.
"We have an entire department called telehealth and they are the ones that do practice sessions with the veterans so they become comfortable using the technology," Dr. Ellis said.
"We can use their existing equipment and just teach them how to download the app and conduct the visit," she continued.
There's also a secure messaging system veterans can sign up for called My Healthy Vet.
"How long do you think it will take before your offices will be back to normal with regular wait times. Do you have a guess at all?" the I-Team's Kristin Byrne asked Dr. Erdmann.
"Well, first and foremost we have to get the pandemic under control and until we ever get the pandemic under control, I don't think we will ever get back to normal wait times," he said.
Doctor Erdmann stresses, if you're a veteran with an urgent medical need, that includes a mental health issue, the VA will get you in right away.
"We want them all to reach out to us and engage us. We will work with them to provide a way they are most comfortable to get their care," Dr. Erdmann said.