MILWAUKEE — COVID-19 caused a backlog in some patient appointments at Veterans Affairs clinics in Wisconsin, but now the VA tells TMJ4 News it's getting back on track with better wait times and wants veterans to know they're safe to come in.
When the I-TEAM interviewed the Milwaukee VA Medical Center in October, some wait times for new patient appointments for elective surgeries or with some specialists were several months despite the VA's wait time goal of under 30 days.
About five months later, we followed up.
"Where are you in meeting than under 30-day goal?" the I-Team's Kristin Byrne asked Dr. Michael Erdmann, Chief of Staff at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
"The vast majority of clinics are already there," answered Dr. Erdmann.
"The good news is, it's better than where we were just a few months ago," he continued.
One of the big reasons for that, Dr. Erdmann says is about 70% of employees at VA Clinics in Wisconsin have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
"We've been able to open up more clinics safely because we can do that with the prevalence of the disease in the community now decreasing," Dr. Erdmann said.
Convincing veterans to come into one of the clinics, Dr. Erdmann admits has been another hurdle.
"Many veterans are still frightened to come for in-person visits," he said.
"They've lost loved ones. They know someone, a friend who has died from the disease, and they know there's no treatment for the disease and many of them and it's been reported, they are in the age group, where they are the most vulnerable," he continued.
"The risk of them getting exposed in the hospital environment that we can provide to them is frankly way less than in the community they live in," Dr. Erdmann said.
Video visits may be the next best option he says, but VA data from November, December, and January shows more veterans are choosing telephone doctor visits for primary, specialty, and mental health care.
Primary care - 3.3 percent by video and 65.7 percent by phone
Specialty - 2.6 percent by video and 30.4 percent by phone
Mental health - 12.89 percent by video and 52.51 percent by phone
"Because so many of our veterans don't live in the City of Milwaukee, they live in rural areas, the challenge has been getting good Wi-Fi connection with enough speed," Dr. Erdmann explains.
While reporting on this story, we discovered veterans making mental health care appointments are not scheduling follow-ups.
"They haven't been willing of they're been afraid to come in, they've delayed or canceled," Dr. Erdmann said.
That's a big concern for the VA.
"Don't wait to come in. If you really need care, please come."
"Call us if you're afraid. Connect with us. We'll figure out a way to help you," Dr. Erdmann said.
The VA says if a veteran has an urgent medical or mental health care need, it will get you in for an appointment immediately.
Check wait times at VA clinics in Wisconsin or anywhere else in the country here.