RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's a $10 billion plan created by Congress and funded by you, the taxpayer. Veteran's Choice was supposed to squash those long wait times for vets to see a doctor.
It was supposed to make it easier for vets who don't live next to a VA hospital to get care. But there are serious problems with the program - meant to be a fix.
You might say Brian Kearns never wastes a moment.
"I make the most of everyday that the lord gives me," said Kearns.
When he's not zipping around his 35-acre ranch in Cumberland County, Virginia tending to his animals, he's diving with sharks, fishing, hunting, loving life - all without the use of his legs.
"They built this lift for me after I started losing feeling in my arms and my neck. This is not an easy thing to do four or five times a day."
Though you'd never know it, Brian Kearns is a paraplegic.
"I've grown accustomed to the fact that I've been in a chair for 34 years and I'm going to need these things."
He suffered the injury in 1982, in a training accident at Fort AP Hill while serving in the Army. Kearns knows patience better than most - he's even a little understanding about the VA Hospital's long waits.
"I kind of understand it, because we've been at war with a lot of kids coming back."
He had skin cancer removed last October at McGuire VA. but it came back, growing in size.
"It's got bumps on it that ooze at nighttime."
He called in March of 2016 and was told he couldn't get an appointment to see a dermatologist at McGuire until April of 2017, nearly a year later. This isn't even for the surgery - just for a doctor to look at the cancer. Since the wait was so long, he was referred to Veteran's Choice.
"This bill will help them get the care they need some place else," said President Obama in 2014.
Congress passed and the President signed the Veteran's Access, Choice and Accountability Act two years ago. Veteran's Choice promised that vets forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or forced to travel more than 40 miles to a VA hospital could get care closer to home through non-VA doctors.
"When you think of Veteran's Choice, what do you think?" asked Rachel DePompa.
"To me, It's a figment of the veteran's administration's imagination. They think they've created a program that will help. They didn't. They created a program that's worse," said Kearns.
NBC12 visited Brian in September. Veteran's Choice still had not called him about his cancer seven months later. He's waited and called over and over.
"They tell you Veteran's Choice is going to call you, then they don't. You talk to someone, they tell you, 'we'll get you squared away, we'll call you tomorrow' and then nobody calls. You call them again. You talk to somebody different. You have to start all over again," said Kearns.
While he was waiting, another driver rear-ended his truck. Brian was injured. He tore his rotator cup muscles and bicep, his lifeline to getting around.
"When you're a paraplegic and your legs don't work, if you don't have two arms, you're not doing much."
That happened in March. Once again, the McGuire VA couldn't get him in for surgery until November. They sent him to Veteran's Choice, who sent him to two different doctors who couldn't treat his shoulder, including a specialist in Farmville.
"When I got there, he said, 'ummm you need a specialist.' I said why? He said 'all I do is hips, knees and ankles,'" said Kearns.
"And they sent you for your shoulder?" asks DePompa.
"They sent me for my shoulder," said Kearns.
Brian is not alone. We found examples across the country of frustrated veterans forced to wait even longer for appointments. Senator Chuck Grassley got so fed up he wrote to the VA, "Veterans have told me they felt they would have been better off just waiting for an appointment within the VA, even if there is a long wait."
The VA's undersecretary wrote back, admitting there have been challenges, saying, "we take your concerns seriously and remain committed to ironing out the issues that have resulted in significant delays."
Brian says once McGuire Hospital found out he talked to Channel 12, the VA moved up his shoulder surgery. That was supposed to happen Wednesday, but he just found out - it was mistakenly canceled because McGuire was told he had his surgery through Veterans Choice. Another example of the miscommunication with this program. Brian has now been waiting more than eight months.
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