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Veterans on waiting lists for much needed treatment

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Veterans on waiting lists for much needed treatment

By Darcy Spears. CREATED Apr 28, 2014

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- It's a medical problem most of us will encounter. The fix is quick and common, but not for veterans.

Contact 13 has uncovered a waiting list so long, the veterans on it are literally going blind.

As a machine gunner in the Marine Corps, Richard McIntyre's sharp shooting relied on his sharp sight. But now, his sight is fading as fast as his wartime photographs.

"This eye I have absolutely no vision whatsoever," said Richard. "At my age I want to see some of the world that I haven't seen in the West."

What's preventing Richard from seeing is the same thing that's plaguing Dominic Pandolph, a Vietnam vet turned pastor who runs a mobile ministry. Only Dominic himself is no longer mobile, "The left eye is the worst."

"What does the world look like to you Dominic?" asked Darcy.

"Fuzzy, and disappointing right now."

He's fallen too many times to count. A neighbor had to install a ramp at his mobile home because he couldn't walk the stairs anymore.

And Richard?

"I've fallen 3 times. I got a scar here. I got an abrasion there. I don't know if I broke my nose, I set it myself. And then I had 4 bruised ribs that I put an ace bandage around for about 6 weeks."

Both men have cataracts.

According to Dr. Robert Taylor of the Shepherd Eye Center, "Cataract is probably the most common eye procedure that's done today. We do a little over 5000 cataract procedures probably a year."

But Richard and Dominic get medical care through the VA, and they've been on a waiting list that's 460 veterans long.

Dominic's sight has gotten so bad while sitting on that waiting list that he needs a powerful magnifying glass on top of glasses just to read.

Most of the time, veterans have to leave the state to get their cataracts removed, traveling at taxpayer expense to Southern California VA facilities because they can't get the simple procedure done at the new $600 million VA Hospital in North Las Vegas.

Hospital Director Isabel Duff said, "That service was actually planned for this facility."

It opened on August 14, 2012, but Duff said, "Not all services could open on that day. And because it is such an in-demand service, ophthalmologists with that specialty are in demand as well."

In the year and a half the hospital's been open, only 37 vets have been sent out of state for cataract treatment. The average wait time is six months.

Richard went to Loma Linda to have one eye operated on, "I think the first one it took, I had to wait 8 months to go and this one they're telling me 13 months."

In the private sector, Dr. Robert Taylor said the wait time is about two to four weeks, "Generally cataracts should be taken out when they affect your vision. When you're bothered enough, there's no reason to wait."

"There are some veterans on that list that I would not have wanted to wait as long as they waited," said Duff.

We asked her to grade her facility in the subject of cataract care, "This is a tough one but I'll give our organization, this facility I'm talking about, um, is a 'D.'"

She said they're working on getting veterans more timely care, but cataract surgery isn't the only procedure with a waiting list.

Take orthopedics, for example.

"Patients that need or are wanting knee replacements or hip replacement depending on the medical necessity and other issues can wait for 4-6 months. At this point."

There are also waiting lists for dermatology, podiatry, vascular surgery and some ear, nose and throat procedures.

"This backlog of treatment is something the VA is admittedly not proud of," said Darcy.

"No, I mean, anytime we have a delay it's not something that we want," said Duff.

Duff said part of the problem is staffing. The VA has seen a ton of turnover since they opened and had some trouble recruiting and keeping qualified doctors.

"Taking care of veterans is not for everyone," said Duff. "By that I mean they may not have that mission as a part of their core."

When Contact 13 started asking questions, the VA started making changes to their cataract program.

"We went through that wait list and we have pulled patients back in for care here."

Some, like Richard, were scheduled for surgery at the Nellis Air Force Base federal hospital.

Duff said, "We've also sent them out of the VA for care based on their medical necessity and the length of time they were waiting."

But their actions didn't come soon enough for Dominic Pandolph. He went to the Shepherd Eye Center.

"It wasn't easy because I had to use two credit cards to do it." 

Tired of living in darkness, he paid $7,800 out of his own pocket to see the light.

Come this July, the VA hopes their cataract waiting list will be a thing of the past. 

If everything continues as planned, including the availability of a surgeon, they'll be able to schedule patients for surgery here in Las Vegas within two months. 

We'll be keeping tabs on that.

Darcy Spears

Darcy Spears

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Darcy Spears is currently the Chief Investigative Reporter for Action News.