By Judith Graham, Chicago Tribune Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 11--PUEBLO, Colo.--Two and a half years ago, World War II veteran Ernesto Tafoya decided to enroll as a new patient in the Veterans Health Administration system. His hearing was failing, and his back was giving him trouble. Many of his friends who were VA patients were getting drug prescriptions filled at dirt-cheap prices. It seemed like a good deal.
He is still waiting for the VA to give him a doctor's appointment.
Tafoya, 77, is one of almost 120,000 American veterans languishing on Veterans Affairs Department waiting lists as its vast, persistently underfunded health system struggles with an unprecedented demand for services amid a national crisis of skyrocketing medical costs.
With a flood of aging veterans wanting low-cost prescription drugs or other services such as vision and hearing care, the number of patients at VA hospitals and clinics soared nearly 66 percent to 4.3 million from 1996 to 2002.
During the same period, funding for VA health care increased about 35 percent to $22.2 billion, failing to keep pace with demand as health-care costs climbed.
Requests for service have expanded so dramatically that the VA last year stopped medical outreach efforts and this year closed enrollment in its facilities to higher-income veterans without service-related medical conditions.
Like many other veterans, Tafoya is wondering how this government-run health system is going to handle service …