Durham County

Women veterans says Durham VA hospital not returning phone calls, keeping them waiting

Kaye Green, director of the Salisbury VA hospital system

Kaye Green, director of the Salisbury VA hospital system, talks about new improvements to help veterans get better access to health care
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Kaye Green, director of the Salisbury VA hospital system, talks about new improvements to help veterans get better access to health care

From problems getting medications and return phone calls to finding stylish eyeglasses, women veterans shared concerns Wednesday with Durham Veterans Affairs Health Care System leaders.

Although the VA holds town hall meetings across the state for all patients at least quarterly, this was the first town hall expressly for women.

“I think it’s really important to hear specifically from our women veterans,” said Jamie Upchurch, women veterans program manager for the Durham VA. “We can sit back and look at what issues we think need to be fixed, but it may not be what’s important to [them].”

Upchurch moderated the forum that featured new Durham VA Director Paul Crews and Chief of Staff Kenneth Goldberg.

The Durham VA, made up of 10 sites including the Durham hospital and three Raleigh clinics, currently treats 70,000 patients, about 7,000 of them women.

Several women at Wednesday's forum said they had problems getting return phone calls.

One said she was expecting to have surgery in early June and had left about 15 messages over the last three weeks to confirm. Not hearing anything back, she was not sure if the surgery is still on.

“Personal commitment – If you need surgery, we will make sure it gets done right,” Goldberg said. He apologized for not being familiar with her case, but said he would talk with her afterward.

The medical center is looking at phone-call responsiveness clinic by clinic, “and we see major issues that we need to address," Crews said. "This is not something we’re just blowing off. We’re addressing it right now.”

Another patient said she repeatedly has had to wait an hour or more past her appointment times. She said she had heard the VA system had set a goal of all appointments being met within 20 minutes, but that had not been the case for her.

“I agree,” Goldberg said. "It should not be normal to be late, and 20 minutes is not good enough. Eight o’clock should be 8 o’clock.”

A couple of patients talked about difficulties getting medications. One said she was given Tramadol, a narcotic pain reliever, for an injury, but when she asked for it again she was told it was only for cancer patients. She said she had no history of drug abuse.

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“The pain medicines are a challenging discussion for everybody,” Goldberg said, “We don’t have a policy that says you can't get them, but anything we do has to be safe, and that’s a complicated discussion.” Goldberg said he could talk to her about in greater detail after the panel discussion.

One VA employee spoke up to say she would like to see better customer service, including return phone calls. She added that her phone is 17 years old and she can’t transfer calls from it. Crews responded that the VA will be installing a new Cisco phone system soon.

Veteran Pearl Galloway of Raleigh said she would like to see more town halls for women vets.

“I think that it’s important that people at the hospital have the opportunity to find out how women are feeling about the way they are being treated," she said. "We have not gotten the same treatment that our male counterparts have received.”

Matt Goad: mattgoad@gmail.com