PHOENIX — Diagnosed with PTSD in 2008 after a deployment to Iraq, 30-year-old Army veteran Dennis Sutherland has spent a decade in the Veterans Affairs healthcare system.
"I think in some aspects it has improved," Sutherland said. "For example, today I was able to walk in to get a chest X-Ray and walk out in 10 or 15 minutes."
But getting a mental health appointment is a different story. Dennis called the VA on April 18 to schedule an appointment at one of the VA's mental health clinics in the Valley. Dennis was told it would be six weeks before he could be seen.
“They told me they need to hire more providers,” Sutherland said.
According to the VA's reported wait times on its website the mental health clinic that Sutherland uses has an average wait time of just seven days for appointments. That’s a stark contrast to the six weeks Sutherland was told he would have to wait for an appointment.
Phoenix VA Public Affairs Officer Cynthia Dorfner says Sutherland's case is unusual because the clinic he uses recently lost a psychiatrist. Dorfner says the VA stands by the integrity of its system to report wait times.
"Those numbers come directly from our appointment database," Dorfner said.
Dorfner also said the agency is trying to keep up with a rapidly growing population of veterans in Maricopa County. The healthcare system receives an average of 300 new enrollees per week, according to Dorfner.
The agency is attempting to hire more staff and expand clinics. It has added more options for veterans to get care through telehealth consults and the agency has partnered with CVS and fire departments.
"Follow up appointments for established patients are well below those of new patient appointments and we continue to look for opportunities to shorten wait times for new patients," Dorfner said.
Steve Cooper is a veterans' advocate who runs the nonprofit Fort Veteran. Cooper claims Sutherland's dilemma is not unique because he hears from veterans almost daily who are given wait times of four to six weeks to see a physician.
“I think you're uncovering the Phoenix VA scandal part two,” Cooper said. “I think the wait times are being covered up."