Veterans fear that an influx of wounded soldiers from Iraq will bog down an already sluggish military medical system as investigations continue into unsanitary conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals.
Soldiers and their families have complained about shoddy living conditions and bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed, where many wounded from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are treated. Amid the focus on that hospital, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson ordered his department's clinics to provide details about their physical condition by next week.
President Bush has ordered a review of all military hospitals -- including VA facilities and the VA benefits administration. The Defense Department is investigating squalid conditions and problematic operations at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md.
Some veterans and their caretakers worry that it won't be long before complaints increase about VA medical facilities, which are expected to treat 5.8 million patients this year.
"You take a system that is slow to begin with, add in all these new veterans and you've got a prescription for disaster," said Valerie K. Cortazzo, a Navy veteran who served at the Panama Canal and in Washington, D.C.
Cortazzo, 43, of Penn Hills, worked as a billing clerk from 1999 until 2003 at VA facilities in Aspinwall and Oakland. She handled a ward of 60 patients, and anticipates trouble as more patients come into the system.
"We were absolutely understaffed," Cortazzo said.
Jeff Cole, of Monroeville, saw the red tape, confusion and pointless requirements at Walter Reed firsthand during five months he spent there.
"Everything they talked about in the news is absolutely true," said Cole, 23, who suffered a split pelvis, a severe leg injury and a head gash that damaged his thoracic nerve on July 15, 2004, when his Humvee overturned at 40 mph outside Baghdad.
The frustration showed in the faces of the workers at Walter Reed, Cole said. "I just don't think they were ready for (the number of patients). I don't think it was any of their faults. I think it was just the way it was set up to run."
In Pittsburgh, where Veterans Affairs operates three primary care facilities and five clinics, two Vietnam veterans have conflicting views of the VA system.
Richard Boarts, 70, of Ford City, Armstrong County, hasn't encountered problems beyond scheduling conflicts that sometimes delay non-emergency treatment. The delays rarely are longer than a week, he said.
"It isn't a thing where you're put on a back burner and left for six months," Boarts said.
But Rich McCluske, 47, of Apollo, Armstrong County, said new veterans can spend up to three months waiting to see a doctor, and face other delays. The line for the eye clinic at the Oakland VA, for example, often extends into the hallway, he said. …