MIDDLE KEYS -- The decision of the Miami VA Healthcare System not to replace recently-retired physician George Castillo at the Key West VA clinic has some local veterans concerned about the length of time it takes to get a doctor's appointment.
"It's always been [that] you can't get in, even when they had two doctors," said Marathon resident Donna Adams, who makes appointments for husband William, who has cancer. "So the real fear now is it's going to get worse."
The VA has two clinics in the Keys, the one in Key West and a facility in Key Largo. Lacking a local clinic, many Middle Keys residents commute to the Key West facility.
The clinic had two doctors prior to Castillo's retirement over the summer.
But VA spokesman Shane Suzuki says that with a lone physician, Dr. Richard Mlkvy, and a nurse practitioner, the Key West clinic still has enough staffing to handle its slightly more than 2,000 enrolled patients.
"The capacity that is there is still adequate to get an appointment in a very timely manner," he said, adding that appointments are available within a week or two for even routine physicals and other non-urgent matters.
But patients say that while they can get in on short notice for urgent matters, Suzuki is not correct about routine appointments.
For example, Marathon veteran Skip Billhimer, 67, says he'll wait 2 ¬½ months for the appointment he scheduled for October.
"I have nothing but the greatest admiration, respect and love for the VA Healthcare System," he said. "The problem is they don't think we need more than two doctors. We have a lot of veterans in the Keys."
The concern of veterans like Billhimer has attracted the attention of Congressman Joe Garcia, D-South Florida, who met two weeks ago with Miami VA Healthcare Director Paul Russo. Russo told Garcia he would send his chief practitioner to Key West to assess the situation, according to Garcia aide Jennifer George-Nichol.
In the meantime, Suzuki said Russo has already authorized a physician to be dispatched to the Keys on an as-needed basis should patient loads get too high during the busy winter season. He said if people aren't able to get an appointment within a week or two they should call him at (305) 575-7997.
"I want to make sure our data is matching the experience of our veterans," he said.