Montana veterans struggle with long wait times for health care


We’re following up after the U.S. Veterans Affairs secretary this week compared veterans’ wait times for health care to waiting in line for rides at Disneyland.

One veteran in Superior has been waiting almost a year to find out what’s wrong.

At his quiet Superior home, Tony Lapinski walks to his job filled with motorbikes he renovates and repairs.

“It’s just for fun,” he said.  But these days, the bikes are covered in dust — there’s no one to fix Lapinski.

“I’ve got a partially herniated disc and a cracked end plate,” Lapinski said.

It’s been a long road from top honors in the Air Force.  In the service, he was an “eagle keeper,” the name for an F-15 fighter jet mechanic.  He cannot forget the promise of health care when he enlisted.

“If push comes to shove,” Lapinski said as he remembered his recruiter’s pitch, “you can always walk into a VA facility and get done whatever needs to be done.  It’s part of how they sold the whole bit.”

It has not worked out that way.  He has a briefcase packed with medical records.  He logs every call to the VA and to Veterans Choice.

“My first call to the VA was July 8, 2015,” he remembers.  “When I first saw a VA doctor was on January 13, 2016.  That’s a six-month wait between when I called and when I was able to step in the little clinic in Missoula.”

Another six months and still no diagnosis for growths on his spine and his liver.  No fix for his severe pain. The painkillers don’t cut it.  It’s difficult to focus to talk and even more difficult to sit for an interview.

He worked as a sheriff’s deputy for years. He can’t anymore. Some days, when the pain is bad and the meds are too much, he can barely write in his journal.

He read a section from a bad day.  “Did I mention that I am expected to act normal, whatever that is anymore, and nurture my family and friends while I am in this state?”

Lapinski says he has no income.  He has no disability, yet, and his Medicaid doesn’t exist. But he does have a simple message for the VA.

“I’d rather have the VA say, you can only get VA care if you put in a full 20,” he said.  “Or you can get levels of it, but here’s a card just like any other insurance plan.  You don’t have to spend months to get into a VA clinic. If they can do it for all these senior citizens and people on low income, why can’t they put that inside a veteran’s wallet?”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is trying to get the VA to fix problems with Veterans Choice. The program is supposed to help veterans in rural areas like Montana.  Its aim is to eliminate waiting times and help rural vets see private health providers. Tester’s bill would let patients bypass the Choice program and have the VA schedule their appointment.

“A lot of folks live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility, and if they’ve been trying to get an appointment for 30 days and they haven’t been able to, this will automatically put them into this program.  And I think it’s going to make the program better,” Tester said.

For now, Lapinski finds the simplest chores to be tough.  But it’s the waiting that’s most difficult, waiting and wondering if he’ll get help.