I-Team: Wait times not much better at the VA

DURHAM (WTVD) -- This Veterans Day has many veterans wondering why things don't seem to have gotten much better at VA hospitals, despite a national uproar about long wait times and shady dealings.

The I-Team dug into data provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and found that wait times haven't improved much at North Carolina's VA hospitals. A snapshot of the percent of wait times over 30 days (the VA's promise to vets) shows no improvement in either Durham and Fayetteville from January to October. At the VA facility in Salisbury, the percentage of excessively long waits actually grew from 11% in January 2015 to 14% in October.

HELP FOR VETERANS AT NC4VETS

And many veterans will tell you that for all the talk about improved services and money thrown at the VA to solve the problem, conditions on the ground haven't gotten much better.

"Man, I wish I could show you the smile I used to have," said retired Sgt. First Class Terry Purnell Senior. "I wish I could, but now, I don't even smile."

Purnell pulled back his upper lip to reveal a few teeth and a painful looking gum-line.

"It was 1984 at Bragg during physical fitness training. I was kneed in the mouth. It broke from my nose down to my bottom lip," he explained.

Purnell says over the next three decades of active service he was seen every 1-3 months for treatment. Since he retired in 2011, he says it's been a constant fight.

"I've been fighting with them since 2011 and they won't give it to me," he said.

Purnell says he no longer has his dental records from his time in the Army and neither the military nor the VA will help him access the records.

"They tell me they can't find my dental records. They got everything else, but they can't find my dental records. I'm not trying to badmouth the VA. I just want help," he said.

The head of state's new Department of Military and Veteran's Affairs, Ilario Pantano, says the state is working hard to fill in the cracks in the federal system.

"We've made the state more friendly from the in-state tuition perspective," Pantano said. "We've made the state more friendly from how easy it is for veterans to get jobs relative to how hard it was two years ago; we've made it more veteran friendly from the perspective that we've tied together a lot of federal, state and non-profit resources through an organization called nc4vets.com. That serves as a one stop shop to make it easier for vets to get access to the programs and the services they need to access dozens of around the state that, frankly, were hard for veterans to access."

Pantano also says the VA is making good on its promise to improve and increase capacity.

"This year, it's opening a second medical facility in Fayetteville and that's going to basically double the footprint of the VA hospital in Fayetteville. We expect that's going to be great for vets and cut wait times," he said.

Pantano says the VA is also building out capacity in Charlotte and Kernersville.

But change comes slowly and so does trust. For the time being, Purnell says he's losing hope that he'll ever see his old smile again.

"We're helpless out here. I feel helpless and hopeless."

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