HAMPTON — Officials with the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center nearly outnumbered the two dozen former service members who came to the facility Wednesday with questions about their benefits.
Halfway into the two-hour open house, nearly all of the veterans had been helped.
Several veterans said they'd never applied for benefits or had never used them, despite leaving military service years ago.
"As far as I'm aware, I'm not eligible for any services," said Lewis Calvin Watts, of Hampton, who left the Army in 1962 after serving two years in the artillery during the Cuban Missile Crisis. "I didn't get hurt or anything."
Watts said he currently has insurance from the years of civilian contracting he did after getting out of the military, as well as Medicare. He worked at both Fort Eustis and Langley Air Force Base doing various jobs. But he said the cost of medicine has risen so much that he's hoping the VA might be able to cover some of those costs.
When he applied in the past, he did not meet the service-related requirement and exceeded the financial thresholds. A VA official told him they'd have to take another look at his finances to see if he was now eligible.
Rob Fitzmaurice, of Yorktown, retired from the Air Force six years ago after 24 years of service. He said he was struggling to get an appointment with an ophthalmologist at Langley Air Force Base so he's now looking to the VA. Fitzmaurice said staff members had answered all his questions within 15 minutes of arriving at the open house.
"I've heard all the horror stories. But I've also read a lot of good things recently — all the new renovations and hiring," he said.
The medical center's director, Michael Dunfee, said the hospital has been through some growing pains the past few years, but things are running more smoothly.
The number of patients at the Hampton center has grown nearly four times higher than the national average. The center and its clinics treat about 45,000 service members annually, a 30-percent jump since 2011. That, plus an exodus of providers, led to extended wait times.
In 2014, Hampton had some of the longest wait times in the nation, with patients waiting 31 days for a primary care appointment. The wait is down to eight days for primary care, 17 days for specialty care and 10 days for mental health appointments, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We have, for the most part, gotten past that," Dunfee said of the long waits and shortage of providers. "We have roughly the complement of primary-care providers that we need to provide the capacity for the number of veterans who are seeking primary care here. That's not to say that we've completely ironed everything out ... We still have a lot of moving parts."
The center hired a dozen new primary-care providers, who Dunfee said are beginning to increase their case load as they learn the ropes. In October, a community outpatient clinic opened in Chesapeake. Dunfee said currently about 3,300 veterans are being seen there and another 2,300 are in the process of moving to the southside expansion.
Dunfee said that any veteran can come to the medical center "any day of the week and get essentially these same services" that were provided at the open house.
"We have an eligibility desk right as soon as you walk in the main outpatient entrance," he said. "I encourage everyone to come in and talk to us and find out what they are eligible for regardless of whether they feel they need services at the time — because it's always better to work through the process at a time when you don't need the services than find yourself in a situation where you have a need for health care and are uncertain about what your eligibility status is."
Rockett can be reached by phone at 757-247-4942.