FOX 11 Investigates: Veterans take VA complaints to Ribble
It nearly took an act of Congress for one Brown County man to get an appointment at the local VA.
Bud Figgins is proud of his time in the United States Marine Corps. He has a wall filled with memories and medals, including the Purple Heart he was awarded from Vietnam.
But this decorated Marine is not proud of the VA.
"It's just that it's so damn slow," Figgins told FOX 11 Investigates.
Figgins has plenty of experience with the VA. He's been going to VA clinics for 28 years. While he has always been satisfied with the care he's received, he has not been happy with how long it can take to get an appointment.
Case in point: last November. Figgins was sent to Milwaukee because he was having major problems with his teeth.
"The infection was so bad the gums were bleeding. Then he told the nurse, 'get this guy in right away because he's got infected teeth.' So they scheduled me for a month later," Figgins said.
Figgins did not want to make another 100-mile trip to Milwaukee. So he tried to get an appointment at new VA clinic in Green Bay. But he says they kept trying to send him to Milwaukee.
Frustrated and angry, Figgins contacted Rep. Reid Ribble's (R-8th District) office for help. Ribble's office made a few calls and got Figgins an appointment at the Green Bay clinic.
When asked why he contacted his congressman, Figgins replied, "It's the only way you can get anything done."
Over the course of the next few months, Figgins had all of his teeth pulled. He was happy with the care he received.
"I'd probably be dead if I would have not had them teeth pulled out," Figgins said.
But after he waited a month for his mouth to heal, he figured it was time to get his dentures.
"I said, 'when can I get my dentures?' He said, 'we get two more doctors coming in July. Probably one of them will be working on your dentures.' I said, 'that's two months down the line. I have to have no teeth for two more months?'" Figgins said.
Figgins did not want to spend two more months without any teeth. So he went to a private dentist. It didn't take two months to get his dentures. Figgins says he had them in just eight days.
If he had waited to get his dentures at the VA, Figgins said he wouldn't have had them until the end of August.
"These wait times are unacceptable," Ribble said.
Ribble says Figgins is just one of many veterans who have contacted his office.
"I'm aware of many veterans that are very happy with the care they get in Green Bay and Appleton and they think the world of their VA clinics and docs. But I also get lots and lots of complaints for a bunch of different reasons about delays, appointments that can't be set for months and still having to travel to Milwaukee to get care," Ribble said.
Ribble says one case sticks out.
"Had a 92-year-old veteran complain that was going to have to wait eight months to get a hearing aid. Here's a guy that served honorably in World War II, can't hear. And the VA is telling him eight months to get a hearing aid. That's unacceptable," Ribble said.
FOX 11 Investigates contacted the VA for an explanation.
"We try to treat veterans where they want to be seen at and where the services are available," said VA spokesman Gary Kunich.
When asked to address the concerns raised by Ribble, Kunich replied, "I can't speak for the congressman. Of course, we welcome his feedback and opinion just as we welcome anyone's feedback and opinion."
Kunich continued, "We offer medically appropriate and timely care at the Green Bay clinic just short of something that might be specialized."
Kunich could not talk specifically about Figgins' case. But he says some specialized cases are sometimes referred to Milwaukee. But he says that's in the best interest of the veteran.
As for any delays, Kunich said, "I can tell you that generally speaking, after someone has a significant dental procedure, it is not unusual for there to be a healing period of four to eight weeks."
Kunich says the current dentist at the clinic is seeing about 100 patients a week. Two more dentists will soon join the staff.
When it opened a year ago, the entire clinic served 3,500 veterans. Now it is serving nearly 7,000. By the end of the year, that number will be 10,000.
"The vast majority of veterans are very satisfied with the timely care they receive here," Kunich said.
But Ribble says it could be doing more.
"I know the folks here in Green Bay would love to get that clinic up and running and full capacity tomorrow if they could. But they're being a little held up by what's going on someplace else," Ribble said.
When asked who is at fault for that, Ribble replied, "Ultimately, it's the VA structure."
Kunich says the services at the clinic were ramped up over time by design.
"We didn't want to open our doors and make promises that we could not keep and not get people in in a timely fashion," Kunich said.
As for Figgins, he says the VA needs to find new ways to do things.
"There's a problem at the top. You can't cure the problem by firing all the top personnel. You have to get rid of that damn book, the rules and regulations," Figgins said.
In the meantime, this veteran is not giving up. Despite his frustration, he's planning to continue using the VA for medical care.
"There are good doctors and there are good people," he said.
According to data released by the VA, the average wait time for an appointment in the Milwaukee region was 11 days. The vast majority of veterans were scheduled to be seen in less than two weeks. Just under 10% of appointments took more than one month.
Ribble says Wisconsin is doing better than places like Texas, Maryland and North Carolina. But he says there is room for improvement.