Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Traveling for leisure is one thing, but traveling for treatment? Contact 13 found local veterans are routinely shipped out of state for medical care.
"It was the whole month of February when we got bombed."
This month is an anniversary of sorts for Vietnam veteran Ron Duda.
"Went through the Tet Offensive. I was in the Navy Seabees. Saw a lot of the war. I lost a bunch of friends of mine 100 feet away from me."
Though he wishes he could block out some of those images, now it's his sight he's worried about losing, "It was about a year and a half ago. It was a spot about the size of a small pea on the inner side of my eye, and I had to have five masses of cancer taken out under my eyelid."
That was in May of 2013.
"I have to fly down every month or two to have more surgery done because the new hospital doesn't have doctors that can perform that. And, so, it's just kinda stressful to do all that."
Ron moved here from Oregon because of the V.A. hospital in North Las Vegas that's barely a year and a half old.
"All the doctors told me to come here. I'd have the best service in the world. It is, but I have to go far away for it."
The hospital in North Las Vegas came with a $600 million price tag and has been called the "Crown Jewel of the VA Healthcare System."
Yet instead of going there for care, Ron has to go to McCarran International Airport where he boards a flight for San Diego. Something he's done eight times now to get to the V.A. Eye Clinic in La Jolla.
"They actually pay for Southwest Airlines. When I was there three days they paid for the Best Western Hotel."
Our tax dollars also provide a per diem for meals, plus all expenses for a caregiver to travel with him. The same goes for any other veteran who's required to have a medical attendant.
"There's people older than me and younger than me from the different wars and we all have to do this traveling."
Contact 13 has learned 1,173 veterans were sent out of state for medical care in just the last ten months. Of those, 36 were for emergency care. The other 1,137 were for what the V.A. calls non-emergent care.
"We will travel our patients to where the best care is available to them," said Isabel Duff, director of the V.A. Southern Nevada Healthcare System.
"Veterans we spoke to expect that they would have been able to get any and every type of care here. Is that unreasonable?" asked Darcy Spears.
"It is. Actually, it's very unreasonable. I mean, it's very unreasonable for almost any system to provide the full range of very complex sub-specialty services," answered Duff.
But much of what our veterans are traveling for can hardly be called sub-specialty. They're sent out of state for things as common as a knee replacement.
"We regionalize some of that care so that we have competent, capable staff that meets the highest standards and that's where we want our veterans to go," Duff explained.
If someone has a heart attack and needs bypass surgery or a stent? They get a plane ticket.
Neurosurgery? Organ transplant? Pacemaker? Plane ticket.
Our V.A. Hospital can treat lung cancer, but any thoracic surgery has to be done out of state. Veterans travel most often to Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego. Sometimes San Francisco.
"Would you tell taxpayers it's cheaper to do it that way than to make those services available here?" asked Darcy.
"I'll start with first, it's better. And second, it is cheaper," said Duff.
For the last ten months, from April 2013 to January 2014, taxpayers spent almost $1 million on airfare alone.
"That picture's going to change," said Duff. "As this facility activates even more, as we enhance services and programs, some of the care that they may need to go out into the community for or that they may need to travel out of state for is going to be provided here."
Our V.A. Hospital does already have some progressive healthcare offerings, like a state-of-the-art prosthetics lab and a high-tech mammography machine.
Duff said they're on the verge of fully activating their ophthalmology program, so Ron should soon be able to do his follow up appointments here.
For now, he's scheduled to return to San Diego in April.
"What is your fear between now and April?" Darcy asked Ron.
"I just hope my cancer doesn't spread."
"Because right here in Nevada you literally have nowhere to go?" asked Darcy.
Darcy's investigation is far from over. She's discovered even more basic treatment veterans are forced to travel for. We'll be asking our federal lawmakers what they plan to do about it.
If you're a veteran who's had to travel for treatment, we want to hear from you. Email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.