Faced with a high demand for services and a wait list of more than 600 patients, the VA San Diego Healthcare System has gotten approval to add 221 staff members to improve the backlog.
The new heads are authorized under the Veterans Choice program, and VA's Public Affairs Director Cindy Butler says 85 of those staff members have already been hired.
The program is part of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act – passed last year – which allows veterans to seek primary, inpatient, outpatient and mental health care outside of the VA when the local VA medical center has no available specialists, has long wait times or is too far from the patient’s home.
Right now, 622 patients sit on the VA San Diego's wait list, though 75 percent of those need services, such as dental and home health, that are not covered by the Veterans Choice program, Butler said.
The U.S. Congress would need to approve a change to cover veterans not included in the program.
"The Secretary (of Veterans Affairs) is asking Congress, 'Can we move money from one pot to another pot?'" explained Jeff Gering, the director and CEO of the VA San Diego.
The local VA has seen a 5 percent increase in newly enrolled patients every year for the past decade, according to Butler. Just in the past year, the demand for mental health services has seen a 10 percent growth.
"They feel more comfortable coming to the V- now or realize that they have a mental challenge that they want us to work with them on," said Gering.
With 15,000 military members discharged in San Diego every year -- 30 percent of which stay here, according to Gering -- the VA medical center is one of the most impacted in the country.
Marine veteran Dennis Rodriguez said until this spring, he has waited a year for care at the VA San Diego just to see his primary doctor.
When he did get an appointment, the doctor would be late: "I would show up for the appointment at 9 o'clock. It would be 11 or 12 o'clock before I could actually see him," said Rodriguez.
But as the VA added new clinics, Rodriguez's wait times dropped.
"It opened up the doors for the annual exam, the foot surgery and the cancer screening procedure, which they saved my life in that one," he said.
The Veterans Choice act went into effect after a scandal erupted in the Department of Veterans Affairs, precipitated by the discovery of long wait times and falsified records at the Phoenix VA medical facility. As the investigation grew, more mismanagement and record falsification was found at multiple facilities throughout the country.
The scandal led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May 2014. The New York Times recently published a report that says despite the shakeup within the department, the number of veterans spending one month or more on wait lists is now 50 percent higher than last year.