SALT LAKE CITY — Vietnam War veteran George Gutzmer credits the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system with saving his life.
The 66-year-old West Jordan man suffered many broken bones and shrapnel wounds in an explosion more than 40 years ago. Over the years, VA doctors inserted metal plates, screws, pins and a piece of someone else's femur to hold his battered body together.
"The TV and the movies would lead you to believe you could outrun explosions. You cannot. I'm living proof of that," he said.
Gutzmer said he's also living proof that the VA not only takes care of veterans' bodies but their minds.
"At one time I was on the precipice, and I was at the point where I was going to quit this life and start a different one. They saved me from that, and I'm glad for that because I can function as a human being again now in helping serve my fellow man," he said.
Gutzmer, who will become commander of the Department of Utah Disabled American Veterans this weekend, and other veterans lamented the resignation Friday of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
"I think it's going to be worse, not better," Gutzmer said during a break in the state disabled veterans convention in Ogden.
But members of Utah's congressional delegation from both parties say Shinseki had to go to correct the problems and change the culture in the VA.
The retired four-star general stepped down amid a scandal over excessive waiting times for care and falsification of appointment records in the Phoenix VA hospital and other locations.
Wait times for veterans' appointments were manipulated at more than 60 percent of VA health care centers investigated in a new report released by the agency Friday. The White House-ordered audit found that schedulers faced pressure to tamper with the system and concluded there was a "systemic lack of integrity" in some facilities.
At the George E. Whalen Medical Center in Salt Lake City, there are 83 new patients waiting for primary care, said spokeswoman Jill Atwood. The average wait for new patients from November 2013 to April 2014 was 31.5 days, more than twice the VA goal of 14 days.
Terry Schow, former Utah Department of Veterans Affairs director, said the Salt Lake VA hospital is one of the best in the country, noting its administrator, Steve Young, has been sent to Montana, Illinois and now Arizona to troubleshoot problems.
Schow receives treatment there for health issues going back to his days in Vietnam. He said he has a good sense of how people are cared for and hasn't heard many complaints.
But he said the hospital has challenges in specialty care. He said it needs more operating rooms, general practitioners and specialists.
"Clearly this is an indication of if there isn't enough doctors, the waits wouldn't be pushed out as far as they are. Some of these waits are 150 days. That's totally unacceptable," Schow said.
Atwood issued a statement Friday from the Salt Lake VA saying veterans must feel safe walking into its facilities, and employees must work continuously to provide them with the highest quality care.
"Where we have failed to meet those commitments we will redouble our efforts to deliver timely care to patients with compassion and integrity. We will identify problems and resolve these issues expediently," according to the statement.
Air Force veteran Wendy Griffin said there's always a wait, but it's not nearly as long as it used to be.
"And when you get in, you're getting a good, quality doctor," the Salt Lake resident said.
Griffin, 54, said the VA has improved the past 25 years since she broke her back in an on-base car accident. She said she used to think of the doctors as "rejects" who couldn't get jobs elsewhere.
"In the last 10 years, it has really come a long way toward serving both women veterans better and our new, young veterans better," Griffin said.
Schow said Shinseki's departure "saddened" him.
"I am just sick of people using the veteran thing for a political point here or there. Let's fix the problem. That's really what the answer is. I think if we could have let Shinseki stick around, we could have fixed them faster," he said. "I don't care who they put in there. It'll take them six to 12 months just to find out where the bathroom is."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he shares that concern, adding he didn't call for Shinseki's resignation but doesn't fault those who did.
"Is that going to change the system? Is that going to help the system? Is that going to give our wounded warriors especially the help that they need and the other veterans? The answer to that is, 'We'll have to see,'" Hatch said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, was the only member of Utah's congressional delegation to call for Shinseki to be replaced.
"I think he should have been fired, but that doesn't ultimately solve the big, broad problem that is the VA," he said. "I think the FBI needs to get involved, and there are probably some people that should be prosecuted for manipulating that data that may have cost people their lives."
Both Chaffetz and Hatch said the VA problems are indicative of a government-run health care system.
"Is this what we're going to get with Obamacare, a federal government program where nobody really gives a damn?" Hatch said. "I shouldn't say nobody in the case of the veterans, but where people just don't do the job as well and we find the system breaks down from time to time."
Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, said Shinseki's resignation was appropriate "given the egregious wrongdoings" in the agency. Matheson said he made many improvements during his tenure.
"However, leadership begins at the top, and the secretary’s resignation was a necessary first step in taking responsibility for actions that took place on his watch," Matheson said in a statement. "Perhaps most importantly there is a lot of work to be done to correct the systemic problems with wait times and access to health care for our veterans."
Contributing: Richard Piatt
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