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'If I'd gone to the VA, I would have died' | VA hospital wait times in the metro among worst in the nation

When Marine veteran Chinaza Duson started experiencing pain, she called the Atlanta VA Medical Center. She said she was told she'd have to wait 6 months to be seen.

ATLANTA — An 11Alive investigation found veterans in Georgia are waiting months for critical health care.

For Atlanta's Veterans' Affairs Medical Center, the wait time for new patients to receive care is 72 days on average. The average wait time for V.A. hospitals nationally is 15 days, according to the V.A..

Chinaza Duson said that wait time almost cost her her life.

“I went into the Marine corps in 1994," recounted Duson, who said she was proud to serve her country.

“I've worked for the secretary of defense. I was a transportation security specialist," she listed. "When 9/11 happened, I was the first one on the scene.”

Credit: Chinaza Duson

When she started experiencing strange pain and numbness in August, she called the Atlanta V.A. Medical Center, "the system that I trusted," she said. She also recalled what they told her: that February was the earliest they could see her.

“Backlog, they told me," she recounted. "At best, they could talk to me over the phone, but I could not get in to be seen.”

Two weeks later, she nearly lost her life.

“I had a heart attack," she said. "I had to have a stent placed in my left circumflex artery.”

So, she said she reached out to the V.A., again.

“[I said] I've had a heart attack," she recalled of the conversation. "'Oh, we're so sorry.' 'Can I get an appointment?' 'No.'”

11Alive obtained and analyzed wait time data for the Atlanta V.A. Medical Center. New patients, on average, are waiting 72 days for care. For some specialties, even longer. The wait time for gastrointestinal procedures is 203 days. The wait for cardiology is 76 days.

Those times are among the worst in the United States.

“I am scared of dying because the system is failing me," Duson said through tears.

Duson said her V.A. care team eventually scheduled a Zoom call, which was cancelled last-minute by her doctor because they “never got the link.”

“My cholesterol is 498, the normal range is less than 200," Duson said. "Had I  gone to the V.A. I would have died. Period. I am trying to stay alive.”

Records show the Atlanta V.A. then mailed her a medication to help lower her cholesterol: a statin.

Duson is allergic to statins. It's clearly stated in her records.

“They put a freakin' statin in the mail and mailed it to my front door," Duson said, exasperated. "You tell me a human being gets to decide my fate and doesn't pay attention to my allergies? I keep screaming to them that I want to live. And you all don't take my health serious enough.”

The Emory Medical care team that treated her heart attack prescribed a new medication, but Duson said the V.A. won't cover the cost. So, she's paying out of pocket, about $1,200 a month.

It’s cost her her savings, her home, and her peace.

“I'm homeless," Duson said through tears. "It feels like a nightmare.”

In the meantime, the only response she says she’s received from the V.A.?

“Maybe we can see you in November and we'll do cardiac rehab, via FaceTime," she said. "If I could become a voice for veterans, then sign me the hell up. I feel completely isolated and I'm scared.”

The Atlanta V.A. declined 11Alive's request for an interview, but said they’d work with Duson to get her the care she needs.

"Due to patient privacy, we cannot discuss the Veteran’s personal information without written consent," a spokesperson said in a written statement. "However, we’ve spoken directly to the Veteran to address her concerns and ensure she receives the high-quality care and customer experience she deserves. We will continue to work with her until each issue is appropriately resolved."

The spokesperson added that the Atlanta V.A. Health Care System offers same-day, walk-in care for Mental Health and Primary Care treatment. 

Average wait-times for routine care can be found by going to www.accesstocare.va.gov and clicking on the Facility Performance tab at the top of the page. Currently, it's eight days for a mental health care appointment for an established patient.

Meanwhile, Duson has started an online crowdfunding campaign to help her pay for her living and medical expenses. 

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