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Iowa City VA Health Care sees uptick in patients

BY MELISSA DAWKINS | NOVEMBER 17, 2011 7:20 AM

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A recent increase in the number of patients seeking treatment at Veterans Affairs hospitals locally and nationwide may mean backups at those facilities, one expert said Wednesday.

Valerie Buckingham, a public-affairs officer with the Iowa City VA Health Care System, said the hospital has seen an increase of roughly 3,000 patients since 2009.

But Rick Rudnick, the director of operations at the National Veteran's Foundation, said a growing number of patients may shortchange veterans seeking treatment.

"The same number of doctors sees more people," he said. "That doesn't help."

Rudnick said he believes the increase in the number of patients frequenting VA hospitals makes sense because many veterans are returning home from service overseas. He also said the economy has left some veterans without other health-care options.

However, Iowa City VA Health Care officials are trying to serve more veterans, and they cite current outreach efforts as a possible cause for their increase in numbers.

"I think some of it is service members are returning but also because of the outreach," Buckingham said. "Veterans have become aware of some of the various services that we offer."

John Mikelson, a veteran and coordinator of the Veterans Center at the University of Iowa, received care at the Iowa City VA Hospital Wednesday.

"They're pretty good about seeing me every few months," Mikelson said.

However, Rudnick said he often hears complaints from veterans who are unable to see a doctor because they cannot schedule an appointment.

"The bottom line is that you have to wait longer for care of a non-urgent nature," he said.

Buckingham said the Iowa City VA hospital strives to see more than 99 percent of veterans in need of an appointment within seven days.

The local VA serves seven community-based outpatient clinics in 33 eastern Iowa counties and 16 western Illinois counties.

As patient rosters swell, the Iowa City VA will expand.

Buckingham said two more outpatient clinics — in Sterling, Ill., and Decorah, Iowa — are set to open by mid-January.

"By having those clinics closer to their homes, [vets] don't have to drive all the way to Iowa City," Buckingham said.

But Rudnick noted national economic factors may influence the continued growth in the number of patients at veterans' hospitals.

"Until the economy turns up, and the tide of returning combat veterans goes down, yes, [growth] will be a problem," he said.

Still, Mikelson said he encourages returning veterans to visit VA hospitals to identify and treat potential problems. Combat veterans discharged from active duty receive care free of charge for five years.

Mikelson said he is happy with the care he receives.

"I think the facility in Iowa City is a real quality organization," he said.


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