PERU – Officials with the Veteran Affairs Northern Indiana Health Care System say they hope to reduce wait times and increase services at the VA outpatient clinic in Peru, where some veterans have reported waiting more than a year to schedule appointments.
VA officials spoke Thursday to a standing-room-only crowd at American Legion Peru Post to address concerns about the lack of services at the clinic, located at 750 N. Broadway, which is the closest clinic for Howard County veterans.
Although some vets said they were satisfied with their treatment, the majority of those who spoke harshly criticized the clinic for its long wait times to see a physician. A number of veterans said they had to wait more than a year for an appointment.
Mike Hershman, director of the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System, said one of the major reasons for the long waits stems to last summer, when two physicians left the clinic, leaving the facility with only one primary healthcare provider.
The clinic once again became fully staffed last month after the VA brought on a third doctor who previously worked as a physician in Wabash.
Dr. Wayne McBride, chief of staff for the northern Indiana VA, said patients should see a considerable reduction in wait time over the next few months as the new doctor takes on more patients.
He said a new VA initiative to use tele-care, which allows patients to speak to doctors via camera, should also allow the clinic to see more vets and reduce the number of patients who have to travel to another clinic to see a specialist.
Audrey Frison, associate director of patient care services, said the VA is also looking into expanding the clinic’s hours into the evening and on Saturdays to allow more patients to be seen.
Miami County Veterans’ Service Officer Jay Kendall said adding a fourth physician to the clinic would be a more long-term solution to providing better service to area veterans.
But, McBride said, the current clinic space is too small to accommodate another primary-care doctor, and statistics indicate three physicians should be able to keep up with the demand for services.
“We have to be careful,” he said. “We want to use our resources appropriately as we can.”
That could change in the few years, however, as the Peru clinic is slated to be substantially expanded in 2020, said Jay Miller, associate director of operations for the northern Indiana VA.
He said funding has been allocated that will allow the expansion of the facility, and officials will begin in earnest next year at looking at new locations that will provide more space for a potential fourth doctor.
McBride said the northern VA health system is also trying to bring on at least two more psychiatrists to meet veterans’ mental-health needs, but none of the doctors would be stationed at the Peru clinic.
“We find that it’s difficult to recruit psychiatrists to this part of Indiana,” he said.
Instead, patients in Peru would use the tele-care system to speak with one of the psychiatrists, McBride said.
Outside of services at the clinic, VA doctors are re-examining the amount of pain medication prescribed to veterans.
“Over the years, many veterans across the country have had opioid doses that have excessively increased out of an interest to meet their needs,” McBride said. “This has been challenging. Now we have a number of veterans who have doses that are dangerously high in some cases.”
Now, the Indiana VA is making a push to introduce non-opioid treatments to veterans to reduce the overuse of pain medication, McBride said. Those treatments include chiropractic, mindfulness, biofeedback, acupuncture, physical therapy and aqua therapy.
Hershman said in the end, all the upgrades and improvement at the clinic aim to give veterans the service they deserve.
“We’re here for one reason, and one reason only – for you,” he said. “I come to work every day, as do all the other folks in the VA, to take care of veterans. That’s our mission, from start to finish.”