PHOENIX (AP) — Vietnam veteran Gene Stoesser has been waiting nearly two months for an appointment with a Veterans Affairs doctor to schedule his heart surgery.
The 71-year-old former Marine from Glendale went to the emergency room at the VA's Phoenix hospital on April 28 with chest pains. He said he was told he'd need surgery soon, but has yet to get an appointment.
"They sent me home to die," Stoesser said Tuesday, surrounded by dozens of other veterans at a crisis center set up by the American Legion in downtown Phoenix in a first-of-its-kind event for the nation's largest veterans group.
The move comes amid growing criticism of the VA's handling of patient care nationwide and allegations of misconduct, lengthy wait times and potential unnecessary deaths.
"All I need to do is get bronchitis or something, and that's it, I'll die," Stoesser said.
The VA, which serves almost 9 million veterans, has been reeling from mounting evidence that workers fabricated statistics on patients' waits for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays.
The American Legion was among the first to condemn the VA after the initial charges of misconduct, falsified wait times and patients dying while awaiting appointments in the Phoenix area about two months ago. The group almost immediately called for the ouster of the agency's secretary, Eric Shinseki. He stepped down on May 30, and investigations are underway by the VA internally and by the independent Office of Inspector General.
More than 57,000 new applicants have had to wait at least three months before their first appointments, while an additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA health care over the past decade have never been seen by a doctor, according to a VA audit released earlier this week.
The audit said 13 percent of VA schedulers reported getting instructions to falsify appointment dates to meet performance goals. About 8 percent of schedulers said they used alternatives to an electronic waiting list.
"Unfortunately, we have to be here," Verna Jones, the director of veteran's affairs and rehabilitation for the national American Legion, told the crowd at the crisis center in Phoenix on Tuesday. "But fortunately, we're here to help you with the services that you deserve."
Jones addressed a packed room filled with veterans seeking help to expedite their care through the VA while many complained they felt as if they had fallen through the cracks.
"It hurts us to have just one vet stand up and say, 'I'm dying because the VA failed me,'" Jones said. "They're frustrated, they're concerned and they just don't know where to go."
The American Legion said it will operate the crisis center in Phoenix through Friday and expects to assist hundreds of veterans, possibly extending the program to other cities.
William Millar, 67, needed help getting his medical records transferred to Phoenix after he moved from Massachusetts in 2012. He said he tried several times, but got no responses.
In just over an hour at the crisis center Tuesday, he got more than he expected.
"They got my records transferred from Boston to Phoenix," Millar said later in the day. "I'm very happy with the help they gave me."
Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report.