The scandal over the Department of Veterans Affairs health care wasn’t news to Rim Country vets. They have been dealing with delays in care since the 1970s when many were discharged after service in Vietnam.
There’s plenty of blame to go around too.
Bud Huffman, Jim Muhr, Mil Thornton and Kevin Whitaker sat down at the Roundup recently to discuss the scandal, the solution offered by Congress, and a better approach for veterans’ health care in rural Arizona.
Vietnam veterans, they have years of experience dealing with the VA and also volunteer to help other veterans.
Huffman traces the problems with delays in care and falsified appointment records back to the administration of President Jimmy Carter when a program to give bonuses to VA workers started.
“Right after I came out of Vietnam, I had to go into the clinic on a pretty regular basis. I’d go to the registration desk and the attitude the clerks had was, ‘How dare you interrupt my social time with my co-workers,’” Muhr said.
That started changing with the Reagan administration, he said. Then someone who acted like they cared greeted him, they wanted to know how they could help, he said.
Muhr and Thornton talked about the pervasive sense of entitlement among the bureaucrats. “The dysfunction is in Washington. There is an attitude of eliteness. They (the VA bureaucrats) don’t know how to function in the real world,” Muhr said.
Thornton said,“It is almost impossible for them to be terminated,” Muhr said.
“If you’re held responsible, you’re going to do the job,” Huffman said.
“To sum it all up, the top management level in the VA is (a culture) based on greed and what they can put in their pockets. It’s not the care providers,” Whitaker said.
“I hope the new legislation makes them all at-will employees,” Thornton said.
Thornton said Congress has to make changes. “Nothing happens in the VA that isn’t controlled by money and Congress is in charge of the money.”
Budget issues prompted the VA to put a moratorium on constructing or acquiring new space, which helps explain why Rim Country does not have a full-service clinic for veterans. “Congress has never given the VA what it needs to be a good health care provider,” Thornton said.
Whitaker said a lot of veterans also have a sense of entitlement.
“A lot of the discontent has to do with the fact that many veterans are their own worst enemy. They don’t follow up. They show up and say, ‘I’m entitled to this care, so treat me now.’”
“Every single veteran is entitled to care, but they have to be proactive. They have to call (about their appointments),” Thornton said.
Huffman pointed to his own experience. He needed to get new glasses, so Dr. Michael Lowe, who is providing health care to Rim Country veterans, gave him a referral to see an ophthalmologist at the VA in Phoenix.
“There are thousands of veterans being served by Phoenix. I called in the spring and was given an appointment for this summer. In reality it probably won’t be until September,” Huffman said.
Thornton said that is a typical delay in care.
VA health care assigns a number to every single condition and medical need a veteran has, from 1 through 8, Huffman explained. The most serious cases are given the number 1 and a priority for care. Eye care, dental care and the like have a low priority, but veterans need to stay on top of their appointments, calling and following up.
“It would be interesting to see how many of those veterans who reportedly died because of a delay in their care ever bothered to do their own follow up,” Thornton said.
“At least 95 percent of veterans don’t have a clue about VA (health care),” he added.
None are sure the solutions in the new legislation will take care of the problems.
“The money is just a Band-aid unless (Congress) truly makes a change,” Muhr said.
They all have a lot of concerns about how much good the “new” card being issued veterans will do.
“Doctors around here already don’t want to give care to veterans because the VA is so slow in paying. Whether they will accept this new card is a question,” Whitaker said. He said he is afraid it will be like the Medicare cards, which many doctors won’t take.
Thornton illustrated the existing problem with his own experience. He had to go to both urgent care and the emergency room earlier this year when he developed pneumonia. He said the people at urgent care turned him away and at the hospital he said he had to wait for two hours before anyone saw him. When they finally did see him, they gave him some aspirin and told him to go to the VA hospital. He said he also had to force them to make a copy of his VA card.
“There has to be more coordination between rural care providers and the Phoenix VA. We have to get certified representation here with an open channel of communication with Phoenix and the VA itself. Right now, lots gets pushed aside by people down there because none of us are certified Veterans Service Officers,” Muhr said.