On the Westside of McAllen, members of VFW posts from across the Valley huddle around a table and sip coffee as they update each other on some of their long-standing injuries and swap stories about the struggles they face getting healthcare.
“Why haven’t we got a hospital when the rest of the nation all the other districts have got one? Why isn’t there one here? They don’t planning on having one?” Army Veteran Jose Vasquez asks, thinking a VA Hospital in the Valley would help.
And Army Veteran Richard Pena talks about the difficulty getting care.
“I waited more than a year and of course now the therapy I have to do is aqua, the water therapy. But it took a long time to get that,” Pena shared with his veteran brothers.
In 2014, veterans like Vasquez and Pena in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley were waiting longer than veterans everywhere else in the country except Honolulu when they needed to see a doctor.
The federal government responded to the crisis by enabling the VA to hire more doctors and nurses. Now the VA also provides vouchers for veterans to see private physicians if VA treatment isn’t available.
Still, many of the 35-thousand vets living in the Rio Grande Valley say the system hasn’t been fixed.
“And they told me well we were going to send you to San Antonio, but the fiscal year hasn’t been set, so I have to wait.”
Army Veteran Jaime Martinez grimaces through the pain that comes from moving his shoulders and knees.
Doctors in January said he needs surgery for a torn rotator cuff and a total knee replacement, but to get that he’ll have to take a long road trip. The VA won’t give him a voucher for surgery at a private hospital in the Valley, which is something he’d prefer. Instead they’re sending him to the closest VA hospital 300 miles away in San Antonio. It’s an expensive trip. The VA will pay for some of his travel expenses, but not a hotel.
“It’s a day surgery," Martinez explains, "but you still feel groggy for a long time afterwards, and I don’t want to stay overnight. Now you have to pay extra because they don’t give that money. They pay you gas money but nothing else that I know of,” Martinez explains.
In the Valley the Veterans Administration mainly provides care through a network of clinics.
One of those clinics is in Harlingen. The clinic’s administrator, Joseph Lynn, says the outpatient facility provides services that range from eye care to outpatient surgery but not everything.
“Hospitals generally have an emergency department and an ICU... and we have surgery but we don’t have any overnight surgery, ours is all same day. We pretty much shut the door at 5 o’clock,” Lynn explained on a tour of the clinic.
And not having a VA surgery center in the Valley is part of the problem for vets like Martinez.
The VA considered that in 2009 and 2011, and determined both times a hospital wasn’t needed.
VA Public Affairs Director Hugo Martinez says the federal agency is once again considering whether or not to build a hospital in the Valley, but he warns that could actually make access to care more difficult for vets living in far-flung corners of the sprawling area. If hospital care were available the VA’s voucher system for private doctors would be extremely limited.
“If you were to have a hospital here in Harlingen with an ER, the veterans from the Valley would have to travel to the ER room here in Harlingen. With the contracts in place rights, the veterans can go the ER in Brownsville, they don’t have to come to Harlingen,” Martinez explained.
McAllen State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who is also a Vietnam Vet, agrees.
“Our healthcare system in the Valley has increased tremendously in the last ten years to the point that if we really look at the problem with access and the needs that our veterans have, we might be better off with vouchers and let the veteran seek medical health from many of the medical providers in the Rio Grande Valley,” Hinojosa said.
Still veterans like Martinez and Richard Pena say having a hospital closer to home would help. In his spare time, Pena drives veterans without transportation to and from San Antonio for medical procedures.
“Some of the veterans are 100-percent [disabled], and are entitled for help for their spouse and kids. And that’s the reason we need a hospital here, we are veterans of course but we all married and have kids. They need attention also it’s not just us,” Pena said.
In August, VA Sec. Robert McDonald visited the Valley and reported the federal government has increased the number of vouchers it has given out to veterans and their families by 15-percent over the past year, but the number of vouchers could decrease if this hospital is built.
The VA plans to release its findings on whether or not to build a hospital in the Rio Grande Valley by the end of the year.