WAILUKU - Staffing levels at Maui's only Veterans Affairs clinic are at 50 percent, resulting in long waits for veterans who need care, officials acknowledged Tuesday.
The problem is partly the result of doctor shortages statewide, said Dr. James Hastings, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Pacific Islands Health Care System. But it has particularly impacted facilities like the Maui Community Based Outpatient Clinic, where the number of veterans needing services has grown by around 10 percent per year for the past several years, he said.
"It's a challenge for us," he said. "It's a very, very complex problem."
Dr. James Hastings, director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, addresses veterans Tuesday in Wailuku. Hastings said the VA is working to resolve staffing shortages at its Kahului clinic.
The Maui News / ILIMA LOOMIS photo
Hastings said that the VA was addressing the issue, and he hoped to fill the vacancies in the next several months. At the same time, he said the agency was aware that veterans were having problems getting through to the clinic and was working to resolve the situation by hiring staff, improving the phone system and looking into setting up a centralized call center.
"We're trying to figure out how to improve access to our system," he said.
Hastings spoke at a meeting attended by more than 100 veterans Tuesday afternoon at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku.
In addition to issues at the clinic, Hastings and other officials discussed other efforts to help veterans, including proposals for a statewide "veterans' court" for veterans in trouble with the law; initiatives to find housing for homeless veterans; and developing a Hawaii veterans ID card to help veterans and their families access services.
Doug Halbert, quartermaster of the Wilbert W.H. Tom Post 3850 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said staffing shortages at the clinic and delays in receiving care remained a top concern of his group's membership.
"There are a lot of veterans on this island, with service-connected problems, who live having to wait for care because of staffing shortages," Halbert said.
He said shortages and turnover have been an "endemic" problem at the clinic for decades.
"It's not that they don't care, it's that they're not adequately staffed," he said.
A number of veterans also were complaining that they were required to fly to Honolulu in order to sit for interviews to determine their eligibility for benefits, he said. While the VA covers the veterans' transportation costs, Halbert said the time commitment was burdensome for veterans, and it would be more efficient to fly an agency staffer to Maui to handle the interviews.
"One plane fare versus 10 or 20 - it just doesn't make sense," he said.
He also wanted to see more efforts to address homelessness.
"It's a sad situation that there are homeless veterans," he said.
Testifying at Tuesday's meeting, Mitch Skaggerberg of the Maui County Veterans Council asked Hastings to address the chronic staffing issues.
"It's become like a revolving door," he said.
Skaggerberg suggested that the VA recruit more doctors and nurses from within Hawaii, in order to build a long-term staff at the clinic.
"Maui veterans need to have stability," he said.
He echoed concerns that the clinic's phone system had become inaccessible.
"You can't talk to some-body directly," he said. "You can't get answers on the phone."
Hastings said he and other officials were aware of the problems and appreciated veterans' support for clinic staff.
"I think they're trying very hard," he said. "My job is to get them better resources, and I'm going to try to do that."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.