Local veterans react to VA scandal

Local veterans react to VA hospitals scandal

August 3, 2014
Grant Colbert, a U.S. Navy veteran, is shown outside his home in Millsboro recently. Colbert served with the Navy until 1991, when he was honorably discharged after suffering a back injury. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Grant Colbert said he was disappointed by recent reports detailing the delay in the treatment thousands of veterans received from Veterans Affairs hospitals.

“There’s really no justifiable reason for it happening. I feel terrible for all of the veterans who went through what they did,” said Colbert, 59, a Millsboro resident who served with the U.S. Navy and was honorably discharged in 1991 after he suffered a back injury aboard a ship.

Colbert said the government has a responsibility to help its former soldiers, and believes outdated technology and a health care system overwhelmed by aging veterans and soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars contributed to the problems.

Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May amid allegations employees falsified data to hide how long veterans were waiting to see doctors at VA hospitals. At least 18 veterans died at a VA hospital in Arizona awaiting treatment. Shinseki was replaced by acting secretary Sloan Gibson.

Like many area veterans, Colbert said he has had a good experience with the VA, unlike what is being reported nationwide.

He received treatment at the Pittsburgh VA hospital and now travels to a VA hospital near Fairmont, W.Va.

“The service I got was outstanding. I never had to wait, and whenever I didn’t call to make an appointment, they made one for me. You hear these stories, and they’re awful. But I hear more good than bad,” he said.

More than 6 million veterans a year are treated at the VA’s 150 hospitals and 820 outpatient clinics, according to a VA spokesperson. The system treats an estimated 50,000 mental health patients each day.

The Pittsburgh hospital is among more than 70 facilities under investigation by the inspector general.

State Rep. Tim Murphy, R-18th District, who along with Rep. Mike Doyle requested the VA Office of the Inspector General review rumors of a waitlist at the Pittsburgh VA hospital, said he is concerned about the delays in health care for veterans, including those who suffer from combat-related mental health issues.

“Care delayed is care denied. Whether it’s getting the VA to call them back at all, or to get appointments, time delays are a big concern,” said Murphy. “For example, at the Pittsburgh VA, the average waiting time reported to us was one month. With a mental health illness, a month is not appropriate. If someone is in the middle of anxiety, anger, agitation, panic or worry, you can’t tell someone to come back in 30 days. It’s something that requires an urgent response.”

Mark Ray, chief of public affairs with the Pittsburgh VA hospital, said the facility treated about 67,000 individual veterans last year. The total number of outpatient encounters was more than 670,000 (a veteran can have encounters with different caregivers during a single visit to the VA). The Pittsburgh VA also processes all overseas claims.

Ray said the VA Pittsburgh takes aggressive steps to provide prompt access to care. Since the beginning of June, he said, the VA reduced the number of new veterans waiting for initial primary care appointments to nearly zero, and attempts to contact any newly enrolled veterans within 24 hours of their appearance on the rolls.

Since January, employees who handle claims have been working mandatory overtime hours in order to reduce the backlog of claims.

A VA spokesperson also said the VA worked to update its electronic scheduling systems and is working to move away from the decades-old, manual paper claims.

The VA is making progress, he said: More than 422,000 claims were completed using the digital system since it was introduced, and it went from touching 5,000 tons of paper annually (the equivalent of 200 Empire State Buildings stacked end-to-end) to processing 91 percent of disability claims electronically.

But it’s still often a confusing process for veterans, which leads to delays in claims.

Rose Almasy said her late husband, Ed, enrolled with the VA nearly four years ago when he began to suffer from dementia, and she believes the hospital and satellite office in Washington delivered excellent care.

“I’m very disappointed to hear what happened with the VA because I cannot say anything bad about them. They were perfect with my husband. We got to see the doctor whenever we were supposed to, and they helped get his medication, which would have cost $300 to $400, for $9. I’ve heard people say they’d never go to the VA, but they never did us any wrong,” said Almasy, whose husband served in the U.S. Navy and died in November at the age of 75. “But I can’t justify what they did to those veterans. Our veterans deserve everything. We owe them for their service and it’s horrible what happened.”

As Murphy awaits results from the investigation, which are expected as early as this month, he said his biggest concern “is if (the VA) would not change.”

“They need to be willing partners for change, A new secretary for the VA is coming in, and I hope the new VA seizes upon this opportunity to make recommendations and implement them,” said Murphy.

He said the VA aso needs to stop punishing whistleblowers, referring to VA employees, including doctors and bookkeepers, who have said they faced retaliation for reporting problems and were moved out of their department or out of the hospital.

“The good news,” said Murphy, “is most people at the VA are good people trying to do the right thing.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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