'I just want to read:' Massillon veteran waits months for eye doc appointment via Veterans Choice

Posted at 9:59 AM, Apr 15, 2017

A Massillon veteran and his family said they’ve spent months trying to set up a doctors appointment through the Veterans Choice Program, the benefits program aimed at fixing the patient wait time problems that have plagued the Veterans Health Administration. 

UPDATE: After News 5 started asking questions, the Sommervilles got a response. Rodney Sommerville will get his new glasses by the end of the month.

Rodney Sommerville is a disabled Marine Corps veteran who served in Okinawa, Japan and Camp Lejeune from 1978 to 1982. 

Since his service, he’s suffered from severe neuropathy in his arms and legs. After serving years in a mortar platoon, he's also lost much of his hearing.

Sommerville is one of hundreds of thousands of veterans enrolled in the Veterans Choice Program aimed at connecting veterans with community-based providers when their local clinic cannot provide services due to lack of specialists, extended wait times for appointments or extraordinary distance from a veterans home. 

Sommerville struggles to walk and enjoys sitting and reading as a result. But he hasn’t been able to read since he broke his glasses in January. Since then, he’s been wearing tinted safety goggles that are not his prescription because he, his wife and family of 8 kids can’t afford new glasses out of pocket. 

“I just want to read. I have to have help with everything else,” Sommerville said. 

Sommerville’s wife, Val, started calling in February and was able to set up an appointment on April 11 at a local provider. 

“And then when we called to confirm it this week, they canceled it,” Rodney Sommerville said. 

The doctor’s office said that they are no longer accepting the Veterans Choice Plan and did not offer an explanation as to why. 

Val Sommerville said she then tried desperately to make a new appointment through their local VA Clinic. 

“First they said it was going to be July,” explained Val Sommerville, who said she was eventually directed back to the Veterans Choice Program.

But after days of back and forth, she still had no concrete appointment as Rodney Sommerville continued to struggle without glasses. 

“To watch someone suffer because of their service and to not be able to received the basic care as simple as an eye glass appointment,” his wife said.  “I can’t even put it into words, it breaks my heart.” 

News 5 reached out to the VA to ask why there would be difficulties in making these appointments. A spokesperson replied with the following response: 

"Providing high-quality, timely, accessible care to Veterans is our utmost priority at the Northeast Ohio VA Healthcare System. We make every effort to work with our community partners to ensure our Veterans receive proper care. We support our Veteran patients whether they are using our services or services in the community and encourage any Veteran experiencing a problem accessing their care to contact our Care in the Community Program Coordinator at the Cleveland VA Medical Center at 216-791-2300, extension 4102."

Several barriers

According to a VA Office of Inspector General Report published January 30, 2017, Sommerville is not alone in his extended wait with the Veterans Choice Program.  

The report determined that veterans faced several barriers to accessing medical care through the Choice program during its implementation in 2014. 

MORE: Read the full report

Of 238,500 Choice authorizations that were reviewed, approximately 149,900 (53 percent) were for veterans who were able to receive care after waiting, on average, 45 days for treatment. 

Approximately 36,000 (13 percent) were returned to the Veterans Health Administration without receiving any care at all. 

On average for authorizations that had yet to be scheduled as of September 30, 2015, veterans were waiting 72 days to receive an appointment. 

The report also pointed to issues with community providers being “paid in a timely manner” under the Veterans Choice Program. 

Sommerville and his family said they’re hoping the next iteration of the benefits program will keep the recommendations of that report in mind. 

“This was supposed to be the fix,” Sommerville said. “So if it’s not the fix something needs to be done.”