When Vietnam War veteran William Simpson walked into a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1988 after spending 22 years in the Air Force, he didn’t anticipate it would be his first and last visit to the local facility.
“They refused my application to get treatment because they were too busy to see me that day,” Simpson, 69, said days before the Republican U.S. presidential primary election in South Carolina Saturday when the state’s 400,000 veterans will be asked to help choose a candidate. Simpson would not disclose the ailment he wanted to have treated, but he noted he has employed a private physician since approaching the VA. “I’ve never been back since,” he said.
Simpson’s experience with the VA is almost three decades old, but he said he sees parallels in the way he was treated and how veterans are being dealt with now amid the VA healthcare crisis that has seen dozens of veterans die while waiting to get treatment nationwide. While all the GOP presidential candidates have said that veterans constitute a priority group in each of their campaigns, none has given details about how they would fix problems in a state where former military servicemen and -women are facing a weekslong backlog to get initial healthcare appointments and subsequent medical services.
“The VA is terrible in South Carolina, I wouldn’t even send my worst enemy to the VA for treatment,” said William Compton, 63, a veteran of the Gulf and Vietnam wars who lives in Greenville, South Carolina. “They can’t treat you: All they can do is set you up to come back for more treatment that doesn’t actually amount to anything. If these GOP guys are serious about change, then they need to give details because folks wants answers all over the country.”
South Carolina isn’t one of the worst states in terms of veterans’ healthcare, but it isn’t one of the best, either, according to VA statistics. Those using its Charleston-area facilities recently have had shorter waiting times for primary care appointments than the national average of five days and longer waiting times for specialty care appointments than the national average of 10 days. And those using its Columbia-area facilities recently have experienced waiting times for primary care, specialist care and mental healthcare way above the national average, with some units making veterans wait as long as six weeks to get specialist care, the VA stats indicated.
The VA on both federal and state levels did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.
Since former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki stepped down in May 2014 after the department was involved in a scandal centered on the widespread manipulation of records over waiting times that in some cases stretched out to months, those waiting times have gotten worse nationally. By November 2014, six months after Shinseki resigned, the average waiting time to get specialist care went from seven days to a little less than 11 days, while the average waiting time to get primary care went from 6.5 days to 7.5 days. Mental health delays were marginally worse.
It was an honor to have the opportunity to speak with our veterans earlier in North Charleston, South Carolina. pic.twitter.com/LksGAAG8gA
— Dr. Ben Carson (@RealBenCarson) February 19, 2016
Some may find these to be curious trends given that President Barack Obama announced a radical overhaul of the department and threw $16.3 billion at the problem. At the time, Obama said newly adopted legislation would help ensure that veterans have “access to care that they’ve earned” and would give “the VA more resources hire more doctors and more nurses and staff more clinics.”
However, Jimmy Lee Wallace, a Vietnam War veteran who is senior vice commander of the South Carolina contingent of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the legislation has made little difference in a state that is home to a little less than 4 percent of the nation’s 21 million veterans, according to U.S. census figures. “VA hospitals in South Carolina are badly backlogged with claims to get treatment,” said Wallace, 65. “There aren’t enough doctors, not enough nurses, and too many patients, and that’s the bottom line.”
One thing that has hurt the VA and the Obama administration is timing. More than 1 million U.S. military personnel were injured during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which ended in 2011 and 2015, respectively, heaping additional strain on what was an already broken system. Among these servicemen and -women, 270,000 suffered brain injuries and 50,000 suffered polytraumatic — or more than one — severe injuries. And one out of five veterans of those wars currently suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In addition, the more than 2.5 million veterans who fought in the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975 are getting older, with most vets being in their 60s now, according to a report by the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation, which noted that 75,000 Vietnam War veterans were severely disabled in combat.
Despite the clear strain on the VA healthcare system serving veterans who were first sent to war by Republican presidents, veterans still favored the GOP candidate over the Democratic candidate in the 2012 presidential election, according to a Time magazine report at the time.
That finding is of huge consequence to the six Republican candidates fighting to win veterans’ votes in South Carolina Saturday. None of the six in the GOP race have any military experience, although all have touted their purported military acumen since the beginning of their White House runs.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump was accused last month of using veterans as political pawns when he sat out a GOP debate and instead held a fundraiser for former military personnel living in Iowa. And Trump last summer questioned the war hero status of Sen. John McCain of Arizona because the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2008 was captured and held as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. Still, the billionaire businessman is the favorite among South Carolina veterans, 37 percent of whom back him over his rivals, according to one poll released Thursday.
To many onlookers, that level of popularity might be appear surprising, especially given Trump’s dovish remarks on foreign policy and promises to cut military spending. Another interesting aspect of Trump’s record has centered on questions about whether he dodged the draft during the Vietnam War era. Officially, Trump received a medical exemption, but some say that was a cop-out made easy for white middle-class Americans at the time. Trump has contended he got a high draft number and just missed being drafted.
In any case, there are real concerns among veterans groups in South Carolina about the GOP presidential candidates and their dedication to the 400,000 former military personnel in the state.
“The candidates are not talking about the healthcare of veterans right now; they just make vague remarks about how they’re gonna help us without giving any details,” said William Robinson, 57, a veteran of the Gulf War and representative of the Disabled Veterans of America in Mauldin, South Carolina. “My members don’t feel valued, and there’s no candidate on either side that is looking out for us anymore.”