Voicing their concerns and complaints about the Department of Veterans Affairs, a large crowd of veterans gathered Tuesday at the VFW hall in O’Fallon to talk about how long-term problems with the V.A. is affecting quality and timely access to health care.
The event was hosted by U.S. Representatives Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, and Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who addressed the problems with examples of their efforts to fix them in Congress.
One of the roughly 50 people in attendance was Richard Hughes, who said that the previous four times he’d gone to the V.A. were negative experiences, and recently, it was so terrible that he almost died.
Hughes, a veteran of the Cold War, said he was stationed on an Army base in Maryland where he was exposed to biological agents that gave him a lifelong illness similar to Gulf War Syndrome. But when he had to get his gall bladder removed a few months ago, his surgeon wouldn’t prescribe him with marinol, a pharmaceutical with the same active ingredient in cannabis, because he wasn’t the type of chemotherapy or HIV-positive patient to whom doctors normally prescribe it.
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On the way home from the operation, his wife had to pull the car over by the side of the road three times so he could throw up. If the doctor hadn’t been afraid of prescribing him marinol, he would have been able to manage his symptoms and the pain from the operation better.
Hughes’s story was just one of many examples of how the bureaucratic issues at the Veterans Administration have compounded the combat-related conditions veterans live with. The Veterans Administration has recognized and started addressing long-standing problems with how it administers health care a couple of years ago after scandals at several hospitals across the country came to light.
Bost and Miller listened to the audiences members’ issues with the V.A. and highlighted a few of their plans to help fix it, including holding some V.A. workers accountable. Another plank involved improving Hospital Choice — a program started in 2014 that lets veterans seek treatment at private hospitals.
“The V.A. will fuss and say, ‘Well, look, nobody can take care of the veterans like a veteran,’” Miller said. “But if you have to have your knee operated on, why do you have to travel three and four hours ... in order to have that surgery and that therapy within the four walls of the V.A.?”
Still, there is some resistance among veterans to going to private hospitals, some audience members said. For as frustrating as V.A. hospitals can be, some veterans are afraid to go anywhere else, and many enjoy the camaraderie of their fellow service members. In addition, it was the V.A. that promised health care for life, not the private sector.
Another issue the representatives brought up was the way medical care is changing in the age of computers.
“The issue that we deal with a lot is (the) V.A. continuing to try to do things the same way they did 20 and 30 years ago,” Miller said. “And the delivery of health care in the 21st century is so much different out in the private sector.”
However, the representatives said, it would be more difficult for a World War II or Korean War veteran to navigate their “e-benefits.”
Despite the challenges of finding the right path to care, both the representatives and the veterans agreed not to throw out the V.A. altogether. Its supporters included Timothy Ogier, a counselor with the Vet Center in East St. Louis, an organization that is part of the Veterans Health Administration but outside the healthcare system.
Ogier, who is a veteran himself, emphasized the positive role the V.A. can play in veterans’ lives, including helping them get compensation, appointments with doctors who understand military service members, and proper psychiatric treatment. It was these services that the veterans hospitals understands better than the private system.
“The resources are out there,” he said. “It is a challenge to find the veterans, to reach out to you, to get you the information. The V.A. is changing, and there are new programs all the time.”
Bost and Miller also spoke about some of the issues and scandals at V.A. hospitals, including the manipulated wait times, the inability to fire entrenched V.A. employees and protecting whistle-blowers at bad hospitals. Many of the V.A.’s problems were systemic, but most people in the audience seemed to take issue with they perceived as the department’s indifference and incompetence on a case-by-case basis.
One veteran recalled the time when he saw a nurse practitioner for a general checkup. Instead of working with him directly, he said, the nurse practitioner tried fitting his appointment into an endless series of yes-or-no boxes.
She asked him, “Does your ankle hurt?”
He said no, because he’d been taking medicine.
“No,” she told him, “the answer has to be either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Right now, does your ankle hurt?”
No, he said. She went on. Do you need to see a doctor? Do you need a cast? The last question was, Does your ankle need to be amputated?
The next question was about his back. The nurse practitioner asked the same series of questions, and the veteran gave the same answers. No, it did not need to be amputated.
They moved on to his neck.
“Ridiculous,” the veteran told the crowd.
The veterans’ health problems were diverse, but the one thing they shared was frustration with trying to cure them. It was particularly painful, given that, to many, the V.A. is more than just a medical center. It is a promise of what veterans deserve and a place of brotherhood.
These were the things that keep the veterans like Richard Hughes in the system they joined decades ago. As much as Hughes copes with his own health problems, he also fights for others to get better care through volunteering on an insight panel at Cochran Medical Center in St. Louis.
Hughes interviews other veterans about their problems, including the very things Bost and Miller spoke about, like Hospital Choice, and his panel makes recommendations from time to time. Recently, it recommended the hospital change the way it admits patients to the ER. The doctors aren’t paying attention to the patients enough, and they tweak medicines without enough information.
But, Hughes said, he has yet to hear back from Cochran about anything.