COLUMBIA - Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Vincent Sheheen has called for South Carolina to have the power to investigate its Veteran Affairs facilities over the ongoing crisis concerning waiting times for medical appointments.
State Sen. Sheheen sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Friday asking Obama to grant South Carolina's inspector general the ability to look into reports that VA officials may have manipulated numbers on long waiting times and to recommend changes to improve treatment of veterans. He also endorsed letting veterans use federally funded vouchers to go elsewhere for treatment within three weeks of an appointment.
The senator from Camden said current delays are unacceptable as indicated by recent findings of a nationwide VA audit.
The VA Inspector General report released last week ranked Columbia's Dorn Veterans Administration Medical Center as the sixth highest for waiting time out of 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics. The report said patients at Dorn on average waited 77 days for their first appointment with a primary doctor - more than five times longer than the department's goal. The report said more than 900 patients at Dorn have been waiting 90 days or longer for appointments.
The audit also found that nationally more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more while an additional 64,000 who are enrolled for VA health care over the past decade have never seen a doctor. The problem became public earlier this year following reports of patients dying while awaiting appointments.
"Our nation's veterans put their lives on the line to protect and serve out country. The very least that the government should do is provide the care and the service they were promised and have more than earned," said Sheheen.
South Carolina Republican Party dismissed Sheheen's letter.
"South Carolina is well represented in Washington by Senator Graham, Senator Scott and our GOP Congressmen who have been taking action to solve the VA crisis. The last thing any veteran needs is Vincent Sheheen playing politics with this serious issue," said SC GOP Chairman Matt Moore.
Sheheen's letter avoids any criticism of the Obama administration for the crisis within the federal entity and instead criticizes his opponent Gov. Nikki Haley who he said has been silent on the issue.
"Governors around the country have requested the authority to conduct reviews of the VA facilities in their state, Governor Haley, however, did not join that effort either," Sheheen said.
Many Republicans including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham have also been vocal of supporting the introduction of vouchers to allow veterans access to speedily get treatment. Congress earlier this week passed legislation that seeks to allow veterans who have waited more than 30 days or live 40 miles from a VA facility to be allowed to see a local doctor of their choice.
Graham said the long-term solution to the crisis is ending the VA's monopoly on treatment of veterans by forcing the VA to compete with other hospitals and clinics.