Lauren Silverman/KERA News

In Texas, four medical centers serving veterans have some of the nation’s worst wait times for new patients. In Dallas, it takes an average of forty days to schedule an appointment with a VA doctor.*

To speed up access to health care, the North Texas VA is ramping up partnerships with private practice doctors.

Ever since Ralph Taylor joined the Navy in 1960, boating has been in his blood.

The KERA radio story.

When Ralph Taylor, 70, started having trouble seeing because of cataracts, he had to stop driving, and doing the things he loved, like boating, welding and camping, became more difficult.

Lauren Silverman/KERA News

When Ralph Taylor, 70, started having trouble seeing because of cataracts, he had to stop driving, and doing the things he loved, like boating, welding and camping, became more difficult.

“You could stick me out in the middle of the ocean, I’d love it,” he says, sitting in his 24-foot pontoon, parked in his Waxahachie driveway.

Ten years ago Taylor moved to Waxahachie from the coldest city in Texas, Dalhart, because he needed to be closer to the Dallas VA after a liver transplant.

His wife passed away in 1999, so his daughters have helped him get to and from the hospital for appointments.

“This VA down here is really modern, they take good care of you,” Taylor says. “It’s just they overwhelmed the system.”

The VA North Texas Health Care System is the second busiest in the country. Last year, there were about 1.4 million outpatient visits.

Online Graphing

And although the majority of appointments are made in less than 30 days, new patients often wait a month, even two months on average for a specialty care visit.

So when Taylor started having trouble seeing, the VA turned to Dallas-based Key-Whitman Eye Center.

The Vision For Faster Health Care

Weeks before the Veterans Affairs hospital controversy dominated headlines, Dallas-based Key-Whitman Eye Center received a call from the North Texas VA.

The VA was hoping to expedite eye care services for veterans in DFW, and wanted to establish a formal partnership.

“In the last 80 days, we’ve probably had appointments for 200 patients already,” says Dr. Jeffrey Whitman.

Dr. Jeffrey Whitman with patient Eddie Carter, a veteran referred to his clinic through the VA North Texas Health Care System.

Key-Whitman

Dr. Jeffrey Whitman with patient Eddie Carter, a veteran referred to his clinic through the VA North Texas Health Care System.

Whitman says it’s an honor to serve the veterans, and he enjoys listening to their stories while helping improve their vision.

“I can have a patient come in with a cataract and within a couple of weeks we probably can have them with functional vision back to work,” he says. “And there’s no reason the veteran population shouldn’t be able to take advantage of that.”

Just The Beginning 

In the last few months, partnerships with local health care providers have ramped up. Jennifer Purdy, Assistant Director for Outpatient Services at the North Texas VA, says collaboration is part of the long-term solution to cut wait times.

“We’ve got to ensure that patients have a way to be seen and that their needs are met,” she says. “So I think we will continue to grow out in the community.”

Purdy estimates more than thirty new health care vendors were added this year.

Finding new partners isn’t always easy. Purdy says private practice doctors in some specialties, like endocrinology and psychiatry haven’t been able to fit veterans in. Part of the reason could be doctors have to wait longer for VA Payments. Dr. Whitman says that can be especially tough on smaller practices.

“Every practice may not be able to do this, but I think practices that know that they’re able to do this should raise their hand and volunteer,” Whitman says.

“And it’s a win-win, if we have excess capacity, it’s not completely altruistic, I get to stay busier!”

A Glimpse Into The Future For Veterans

Ralph Taylor was happy to go to Key-Whitman, where he had surgery to remove cataracts in both eyes.

Before surgery, Taylor couldn’t drive, couldn’t fix his boat, and he definitely couldn’t see individual leaves on the cottonwood outside his window.

“But I was out here the other night and it was a full moon, and boy, I just love Texas at times like that,” he says, smiling.

The Dallas VA Medical Center.

VA North Texas Health Care System

The Dallas VA Medical Center.

Taylor says the VA, by helping pay for medications and surgeries, has kept him from being completely destitute.

Now, congress is trying to help the VA from going broke. The $16 billion health care bill signed by President Obama provides money for more partnerships like the one between Key-Whitman Eye Clinic and the North Texas VA.

If providers step up, the second busiest VA system might get some relief. And patients waiting in line might be able to get back to doing the things they love faster.

*UPDATE: The most recent data, from August, 2014, shows the average wait time for new patients to schedule an appointment has dropped to forty days, from sixty in May.