SOUTH FLORIDA -- As the national Veterans Affairs scandal over falsified wait-time records continued to unfold last week with the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki, the Miami VA Healthcare System announced it will bring in a psychologist to split time between clinics in Key Largo and Homestead.
"We're always looking to see whether demand is going up or down," said Miami VA spokesman Shane Suzuki, who asserted that the change has nothing to do with the national headlines. "Our fiscal year ends in September and we're starting to get good sense of the numbers for our 2014 fiscal year."
VA records show that patient loads at the Key West clinic jumped 5 percent in 2013, while the number of patients in Key Largo dropped 7 percent. So far this year, the numbers are trending up in Key West, Suzuki said, and holding steady in Key Largo.
Mental health visits have followed a similar pattern, increasing 15 percent in Key West between 2012 and 2013, while decreasing 17 percent during that period at the Key Largo clinic.
The VA faced criticism last year in Key West after the agency chose not to bring on a new doctor to replace retired physician George Castillo. The decision left the clinic with just one physician and one nurse practitioner.
Though Suzuki told the Free Press last November that wait times in Key West were no more than two weeks, even for routine physicals, patients provided a different take. One said he had to wait 2 ¬½ months for an appointment.
In response to those concerns and pressure from the office of U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, the VA added a second doctor over the winter to handle the seasonal influx of patients. With the season over, Dr. David Causey has since been pulled away from the post.
Marathon resident Donna Adams, who was among the individuals upset about wait times last fall, says the addition of a seasonal second doctor made a difference.
"Things are working much better," she said last week.
But Vietnam War veteran Bill Cooper, who also lives in Marathon, says he continued to experience difficulties after he injured his Achilles tendon in January. He says he called the Key West clinic and was told that his primary care physician would be notified. However, nothing happened.
In February, Cooper was at the VA hospital in Miami for an eye appointment and asked about the status of his Achilles appointment, but nobody knew anything about it.
"Somehow I was completely lost in the system in Key West," Cooper said.
The VA has not responded to a Free Press request for wait-time data for the past 1 ¬½ years at the Key Largo and Key West clinics. The VA spokesman Suzuki also did not provide staffing numbers in Key Largo and Key West, as requested. He said that last month the Key West clinic hired a new mental health worker, whom he believes is a social worker.
Suzuki did not respond to a follow-up phone message and email to confirm the new worker's position.
In a statement to Garcia's office, which the congressman passed along to the Free Press, Suzuki said the VA clinics in Key West, Key Largo and Homestead were able to schedule appointments for more than 95 percent of patients last year within two weeks.
Garcia said that during a visit to the Key Largo clinic last week veterans told him that they needed a mental health worker. Until now, the Key Largo clinic has only provided mental counseling via phone.
In addition, the female veterans want a nurse practitioner who is a woman, the congressman said.
He said he is taking a wait-and-see approach as to how the clinics are running.
"They love the VA," the congressman said of the Key Largo clients. "They want services to come quicker, but they understand."
Staff writer Gwen Filosa contributed to this report.