Sunday, June 1, 2014
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs became an explosive political story this week, culminating with the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The final straw appeared to be a report that described chronic wait times at the Phoenix hospital and found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten." The VA and independent investigators with the Office of Inspector General are still in the process of uncovering problems at dozens of other VA facilities around the country while some lawmakers are calling for criminal probes.
As the investigations unfold, The Associated Press reached out to veterans in Arizona and several other states to recount their experiences with VA medical care. Some described delays and oversights. Others said they were pleased with their care.
The ongoing investigations are currently focused on scheduling, delays in care and allegations that VA managers instructed employees to falsify records. But independent reports dating back a decade have found that, while access is a problem, VA care has consistently been equal to or better than that in the private sector.
Here is what some veterans had to say:
Vietnam veteran Dan Dominey has been in pain for months because, he said, the VA hospital in Phoenix delayed his care. The 66-year-old former Marine fell and broke his back in December.
Dominey, of Mesa, Arizona, said he had been using the VA for health care for about eight years, and he thought the service had been fine. But he never suffered any serious injuries or illnesses until now.
"They've never been quick about getting me an appointment. But then again, I never needed anything right away until this back situation happened," Dominey said.
At first, the self-employed welder didn't know how serious the injury was, so he kept working, suffering through the pain.
He finally went to the VA hospital in Phoenix in January, about a month after the accident.
At the clinic, VA doctors first performed X-rays, then weeks later an MRI, and nearly a month later a bone scan.
Dominey said he was eventually referred mistakenly by the VA to a private neurologist, and he finally got an appointment with an outside neurosurgeon. By the time the VA had scheduled him for surgery, it was already mid-May, nearly six months after the injury.
What Dominey heard next was disheartening. He said the doctor shook his head in frustration and told him the procedure likely wouldn't work now because it had been too long since the injury.
The wound should heal on its own, he was told, but it could be another year with constant pain and medication.
"I could have avoided months of pain," Dominey said.
Thales Elliott has relied on VA medical care since he lost both his legs in Vietnam. After 46 years, Elliott has no complaints about his treatment.
"I wouldn't bad-mouth them because they've taken good care of me," said Elliott, 79, of Augusta, Georgia, who serves as commander of a local chapter of the group Disabled American Veterans.
Elliott was serving in the Army in Vietnam when a fellow soldier triggered an exploding booby trap that shredded both of Elliott's legs. After coming home, he was fitted with prosthetic legs and learned to walk again using a cane. Decades later, he still drives a car and is independent enough to live alone.
Elliott said the only inconvenience he has encountered with the VA was two years ago when he went to the emergency room with a sharp pain in his midsection. An X-ray turned up nothing, so doctors gave him some medicine and sent him home. But he remained in too much pain to lie down or sit up. The next day, he got to see his primary care doctor, who discovered Elliott had a kidney stone.
"Other than that, I haven't had any problem with them," he said. "I get my medicine, and I see a doctor once or twice a year."
Veteran Justin Grimes has had nightmares almost daily since 2006 after he returned from fighting in Iraq. The retired sergeant from Nashville, Tennessee, who served in both the Army and Marine Corps said he has spent two years wading through paperwork and red tape and still has not been able to make an appointment online to see a psychologist or sleep specialist with the VA.
Grimes, who said he does not know if he has missed a step in the process, he has been unable to take time from work to go into a VA hospital and spend the day waiting to see someone in person about getting an appointment.
"It's very frustrating, and with everything going on in the VA, I don't have much faith in them right now," he said.
His father paid for a private psychologist. But Grimes said he didn't see immediate results and could not afford to keep going.
Grimes, 33, said he had to quit his accounting job because of exhaustion and frustration. He recently moved from Nashville to Valley Center, California, north of San Diego, where he works as a manager at Archi's Acres, an organic farm and training center for veterans. He said the physical exertion of running the farm helps ease his anxiety, but he still suffers from insomnia and hopes to get help from eye-movement therapies and other procedures.
"I'm sure if I was bleeding out, the ER would see me right away. But it's frustrating to try to get care for other things, and it's hard to get care for mental health," Grimes said.
When Joseph Shaffer was transferred to the VA's Denver hospital after 28 days at a private facility following a major stroke in 2012, his wife, Valerie, was worried.
"You hear a lot of people complain" about VA care, Valerie Shaffer said. "But, for the most part, I couldn't be happier."
The nurses and doctors were caring and attentive during the three months Shaffer spent hospitalized. "They took super care of him in the ICU," she said.
Before he was released, nurses visited their house to make sure they had equipment to make the home accessible for Joseph's more limited mobility.
Joseph Shaffer, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran, still can't speak. But his wife said that his return visits to the VA for therapy and checkups are full of warmth.
"He's such a flirt. He needs 10 hugs before he gets out of there," she said.
Valerie Shaffer is the office manager at the Colorado state office of Veterans of Foreign Wars and said that veterans she refers to the VA's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder program are universally happy with it. However, she said it can be difficult to get a new appointment at the VA. She and her husband are growing tired of being directed to the emergency room to deal with new problems that arise.
Army veteran Patrick Browne is unhappy with both the medical care and the customer service he has received from the Denver VA.
He's had two surgeries on his foot and may need a third. He thinks VA doctors might have misdiagnosed his problem, initially thought to be a tendon issue but now believed to be a broken bone.
Before one surgery, a doctor seemed put out that Browne wanted to know so much about it.
"You're still asking questions?" he said the doctor asked him.
"Yeah, you're about to operate on my foot," Browne said he replied.
Browne served in the Army from 2001 to 2005 and is now interim director of veteran student services at the University of Colorado, Denver.
He's been waiting nearly six months to hear if the VA hospital can set up physical therapy with an outside provider because the only hours the VA facility has available would cause him to miss work, Browne said.
Associated Press Writers Dan Elliott in Denver, Brian Skoloff in Phoenix, Julie Watson in San Diego and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.