Combat veterans who came home only to fight another battle over health care in Hawaii got a chance for a face-to-face time with Sen. Mazie Hirono Tuesday.
Hirono was present for the first Senate committee meeting on Veterans Affairs.
Vietnam veteran Victor Craft calls the Veterans Affairs problems "a train wreck in slow motion." He says veterans have died for unknown reasons and that waiting to fix the problems is unacceptable.
"I received a letter stating I was accepted into the VA system and that I had only a couple months left for particular services,” Hawaii Army National Guard Captain Elisa Smithers said. “I was so disgruntled I tore up the letter and threw it away."
Smithers said trying to get treatment upon her return was just as painful. She was sleeping in a closet to curb anxiety when she couldn't get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hawaii’s VA wait times were once the worst in the country.
The VA Pacific Islands Health Care System is working to improve that rating -- focusing on better scheduling and coordination. Officials say wait times for new Hawaii patients seeking appointments have now been reduced to 45 days.
"Probably the best in the country's efforts working with our Office of Rural Health to find ways of improving the ability to move patients between islands," Maui Veterans councilmember Fred Ruge said.
With veterans living throughout the state, much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on getting timely health care access.
"We have two doctors on the island -- 75-miles apart -- and there's no way they can service these veterans,” VA Deputy Undersecretary of Health Dr. James Tuchschmidt said.
Molokai has only one vet center. The Big Island has two for Hilo and Kona.
"Once you get to Oahu -- depending on your ability to use transportation service to get to Tripler Army Medical Center, (and) that takes some reimbursement, there's a substantial lag time,” West Hawaii Veterans councilmember Robert Strickland said.
While many veterans have had bad experiences, others understand the challenges.
"Once the veterans get into the system, we have some of the best doctors in the world,” Maui Veterans councilmember Cummins Kameeiamoku Mahoe III said. “I think Tripler Hospital is doing a tremendous job."
In conjunction with Tuesday's hearing, the VA in Hawaii is scheduling a town hall meeting at the Oahu veteran’s center Sept. 26.
Hirono says a bill recently signed into law includes funding to hire more health providers.