At least 300 Montana veterans who need orthopedic surgery are ona waiting list while the Department of Veterans Affairs MontanaHealth Care System works to recruit a full-time surgeon to helpease the growing backlog of disabled — and often disgruntled —veterans. To receive surgery, Montana veterans without private insurance musttravel out of state for care or pay for it out of their pockets. Tocompound this problem, Montana veterans are being told that the VAfacilities in Denver and Salt Lake City are too busy to acceptMontana patients. Subsequently, they are being placed on a waitinglist that is approaching two years. Robert Wombolt, a 77-year-old U.S. Air Force Korean War veteran, ison the growing waiting list. The Billings resident had three knee surgeries beginning inNovember 2009 and was told that he would also need his left hipreplaced. With that, his wait began. At one point, Wombolt said, hewas No. 20 on the waiting list. On March 1, his wait became indefinite after receiving a letterfrom Dr. Philip P. Alford, chief of surgical service at the VAHospital in Fort Harrison, which is about 250 miles fromBillings. “We regret to inform you that your upcoming orthopedic surgery willneed to be postponed,” Alford’s letter said. “… Someone will becontacting you in the near future with further information toinsure you receive the orthopedic care you need.” Wombolt still waits. He’s heard nothing. “It’s been so long I think they forgot me,” Wombolt said. On a pain-intensity scale from zero to 10, Wombolt said his painaverages from seven to nine. His walk is more of a shuffle and hecan’t navigate long distances. Wombolt has no idea where he is onthe waiting list and fears talking about it publicly will shove himfurther toward the bottom. “I’m just disgusted with the VA,” Wombolt said. “You call and youjust get the runaround. It’s a waste of time.” Tired of the wait, Wombolt has contacted U.S. Sen. Jon Tester,D-Mont., and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.Tester has assured Wombolt that he will look into hisconcerns. The waiting list of veterans is due primarily to a shortage ofstaff at the VA Hospital at Fort Harrison, according to Tester’soffice. The hospital has been searching for an orthopedic surgeonto replace Dr. Peter Wendt, who retired and hasn’t operated sinceMarch 18. There were two orthopedic surgeons on staff, but Wendt was the onlyone who performed hip and knee replacement surgery. Veterans werealready waiting their turn on the operating table while Wendt wason staff. His absence has only exacerbated the problem. VA Montana has received several applications for the position,which pays between $97,988 and $375,000 and includes a generousbenefits package. But no one has yet been hired, according toTester’s office. The burgeoning backlog has caught the attention of both Tester andVeterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. The topic dominated muchof an hourlong session Tester and Shinseki held with more than 100veterans in July. Since then, the drumbeat of discontent has grownlouder. In a tersely worded letter to Shinseki, Tester said, “Thissituation is completely unacceptable and it’s getting worse.” Tester implored Shinseki to provide as much assistance and guidanceas necessary and urged the VA to more aggressively pursue fee-basiscare that would allow the needs of veterans to be addressed locallyand in a more timely manner. “Further delaying or denying care for veterans whose conditionsworsen each day is an outcome I cannot accept,” Tester said. “Withmore and more troops returning home and in need of care, theinability of the VA to recruit and retain quality doctors andsurgeons has to become a higher priority.” Shinseki has received the letter and in July promised veterans thatgetting them access to quality health care is a priority. While VA Montana continues its search for a surgeon, it is takingother steps to address veterans’ needs. At the end of August, VAMontana will begin a three-year pilot program called Project ARCH,Access Received Closer to Home. Billings has been chosen as one offive sites nationwide for the pilot project. ARCH will contractwith Billings medical providers to deliver care not available at VAMontana. Veterans in the Billings area awaiting orthopedic surgery will becontacted by a VA representative to discuss their eligibility forthe pilot and other care options through VA. If veterans agree toparticipate in Project ARCH, and they are eligible, they will bereferred to the program. The contracted provider has 14 days toschedule an appointment with their network providers, andsubsequently schedule the surgery in the community. Meantime, Wombolt said he doesn’t have much confidence in the VA.He is putting his faith in Tester. “I will just wait and hope,” Wombolt said.