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Veterans share personal experiences at Phoenix VA

About 200 veterans and family members attended a May 13 American Legion System Worth Saving (SWS) town hall meeting at Legion Post 41 in Phoenix that focused on problems at the local Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center.

The Phoenix VA Health Care System is currently being investigated by VA’s Office of Inspector General because of allegations that patient deaths have been linked to a secret list used by the hospital to hide long delays in medical appointments.

American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger spoke at the town hall meeting, stressing to veterans and their families in attendance the importance of VA accountability in giving veterans the care they have earned. “We have to be accurate and have fair data regarding waiting times and best-treatment options.”

Dellinger said when news media uncover emails from a VA supervisor about gaming the system, “you know the problem is cultural….Too often, the gaming that the manager describes resembles Russian roulette. If you aren’t seriously ill, or you happen to be near a responsive VA center, you win. If not, you lose.

“When one patient dies, it’s a tragedy. When it’s a preventable death, it’s intolerable. When it’s concealed, it’s unforgivable.”

Instead of being held accountable, Dellinger said senior leaders at some of the worst VA hospitals and regional offices “are being rewarded with generous bonuses that should outrage all taxpayers.”

While VA is taking criticism nationwide for delayed medical care and incompetent administration, Dellinger reminded the audience that “there are plenty of good stories to tell. (VA) has many compassionate and professional health care providers. Unfortunately, their devotion is being overshadowed by some of their colleagues who have lost focus on what it means to truly serve veterans. Simply put, we want the truth.”

Tom Mullon and Roscoe Butler, members of The American Legion’s System SWS Task Force participated in the meeting, as well as Steve Young, interim director of the Phoenix facility. Young recently replaced Sharon Helman, who was placed on administrative leave by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Mullon said the SWS Task Force was created “to look into VA medical centers and find out what they’re doing right and wrong, and you can understand why we’re here. Sometimes we find excellent things we like to report … but other times we have to dig deep, as we will tomorrow and Thursday into what’s going on at the medical center.”

Mullon is a former VA medical center director and a former regional director in the VA system with about 40 years of service in public and private hospitals. “We’re going to gather information and facts, and we’ll report these facts straight up – no fooling around. Straight talk, that’s what I promise you.”

Director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division Verna Jones moderated the event. “For all of you family members and friends in the community who have lost veterans, for whatever reason, whether it’s because of the delays from the VA – and specifically we’re talking about Phoenix. Whatever the reason is, these preventable deaths should never have happened and The American Legion is greatly saddened. We want every veteran who came here tonight to tell us what you want us to know.”

Veterans told many tales of problems they have encountered at the Phoenix facility: paying out-of-pocket for treatments and services; experiencing months-long delays in medical appointments; not being notified by medical staff about debilitating conditions; medical staff leaving and not being replaced; failure to return phone calls; and the absence of an effective phone message system.

Matthew Androtti, an Iraq war veteran, bluntly said, “We don’t even trust the VA. We’re scared.”

David Barnett, a post-Vietnam War Marine veteran, claimed the problems in Phoenix exist “throughout the (VA) infrastructure.” Holding up a large purple container of pills, he told the crowd, “This is what we get. Got cancer? Take a pill. This is a problem with the entire VA system – not just Phoenix but with Prescott (Ariz.) and Houston, too.”

Martin Schwab, a patient at the Phoenix VA, said, “It is virtually impossible to get a hold of anyone over the telephone. There used to be an answering machine; now there is none. Nobody answers the phone.” Another problem Schwab said is that patients can’t get their medications from their regular providers on weekends and holidays. “You have to go to the emergency room for your meds," he said. "Somebody brings them down in a paper bag; nobody goes over the meds with you.”

At one point, a doctor doubled Schwab’s dosage but didn’t tell him. “The end result was, I was taking 4,000 milligrams a day.” Three days later, his heart stopped while he was on a cruise and had to be medevaced out of Haiti. “That cost me $12,000 out of my own pocket” because VA denied his claim.

“These problems are not the fault of doctors or nurses,” Schwab said. “They are as frustrated as we are.”

Vietnam War veteran Clarence Oliver, who has a 100 percent disability rating, said, “You don’t get to see doctors anymore, you get to see students and interns. When I went into the service, we were promised to get the best health care available.”

Oliver said he has been battling VA over his health care for more than 40 years. “They give you sacks full of pills to solve the problem. They don’t fix it. I’m living on morphine and drugs right now. They’re telling my wife that they can’t fix (the problems) now, can’t do nothing for me except keep him comfortable until I die. That’s the help I got from the VA.”

Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a whistleblower who works at the Phoenix VA medical center, said in April the facility cut off any phone messaging capability for medical providers. The help line was supposed to be expanded with more operators, but the hospital had difficulties recruiting workers “which is why you can’t get through," she said. "It’s easier for me to walk over there.

“One of the problems with VA is that there is no standardization of nursing triage. In all the ambulatory care clinics, the mental-health clinic, the ER, it’s actually the luck of the draw. There is no standardization.”

Mitchell said she was aware of many patients whose appointments had been cancelled multiple times, “especially the first appointment.” She suggested that patients should go to the facility’s release-of-information office and get printouts of their past clinic visits. “It’s very easy to get," she said. "If you have that printout, you have a written record to show your legislator that, ‘Yes, my appointment was cancelled this many times.’

“If you feel like you had a loved one who died while waiting for a consult, the consults are administratively closed, but they don’t disappear off the chart. All you have to do is go down to release-of-information, show proof that your loved one has passed away, and you can get a printout of every single consult. And on those consults are the addendums that show how many times the appointment was scheduled or canceled.”

Mitchell said there are tens of thousands of good cases handled at the Phoenix VA in the 16 years she has worked there. For those patients who are turned away by the front desk when they want to see a nurse, Mitchell recommended asking for the triage nurse on duty, then the head nurse for the clinic, and finally the clinic director.

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Mark Mudra

May 21, 2014 - 10:49pm

Dear Mr. Dellinger, Please find and open a packet delivered to you at Legion HQ. It came to you via UPS , Please open it and respond !! Mark

Fed up Vet

May 21, 2014 - 4:15pm

I lived in Arizona for 23 years, never went to the VA. Moved to Texas in 2007 and joined the Kerrville VA. I am a Viet Nam Vet and was exposed to Agent Orange. I had a heart attack 10 years ago while on a business insurance plan. Now at 68, my choices are Medicare or the VA. I spend November through Feb in Chandler AZ. I experienced chest pains, and went to the VA at Williams Air Force Base. When I walked in it was difficult to get anyone's attention. I was standing at a counter, and they could not at first find me in the VA System in their computer. I gave them my VA Card, and SS number. After a while they found me, but my phone number was not there, but had been there previously for 7 years. The phone on the wall rung, and the person signing me in answered the phone and had a short conversation with the person on the line. Went like this: If this is an emergency, dial 911. No I cannot transfer you to another, if this is an emergency, dial 911. He then abruptly hung up and returned to try get my phone number into the system. He said are you experiencing chest pains now? I replied, just a little discomfort. He replied....do you want me to dial 911. I replied.....why, I came to you, the VA Center at Williams Air Force Base, as you were in driving distance from where I was staying. He then told me to set down for just a minute and he would get someone to see me. A person, doctor or nurse came out of an office and asked me how I was feeling. I said I was having a little chest discomfort. He said do you want me to dial 911. I said, if you diall 911 where will I go. He said he did not know, where ever the ambulance might take me to a hospital that had an opening or was close by. I then asked him who would pay the bill if I went to a hospital. He said I do not know, but if it saves your life it would be the best choice. We continued to talk. He asked me several more times if I wanted him to dial 911. He could see I was stressing out and very frustrated. He said come in to my office. I will give you an EKG. He checked my blood pressure, did an EKG. By then, I felt a little better for him just trying to do something. I settled down. My chest discomfort went away. He said I am going to make you an appointment at the Main VA in Phoenix for further testing. They will call you after I set an appointment. He looked in the system for my phone number, and it was missing, after we had just put it in at the desk outside the office. He put the number in again, and wrote himself a note with the number. I left, and the next day about 10:AM, I had not heard from the Phoenix VA. I called them on the phone. The phone immediately picked up and here is what it said. It was a recording. You have reached the Phoenix Regional VA Hospital. All lines are busy. If this is an emergency,dial 911. I called 5 times throughout the day to the Phoenix VA, and got the "dial 911" message 5 times. The next morning, Larry from Williams Field called me and said, Marv, I looked into the computer and I see they have you as missing an appointment. I said Larry, they never called me, and I could not call them. He looked into the computer and said, your phone number is not showing again. He asked me if I could please come back to Williams Field and he would get the phone number in the system once and for all. I drove to Williams Field, and a lady came out of the office. She hand wrote my information and phone number. Asked me to wait in a chair while she re entered it into the system. She then came out and gave me a print out to show that it was now entered in the system correctly, and should stay there. Larry from Williams Field then followed through, and made me another appointment at the Phoenix VA for the following morning. I had an early morning appointment. I knew I would be caught in AM traffic, so I left my house about 2 hours early. I arrived at the Phoenix VA parking lot 45 minutes before my appointment. There were no parking spaces available. There were more than a dozen vehicles driving around and racing for any spaces that opened up. After driving for 45 minutes, I could not find a spot. Next thing I look and see I am now 10 minutes late for my appointment. I saw a car with back up lights on that was leaving a space. I immediately pulled up behind the car to block it, got out of my vehicle and when the party rolled down their window, I asked them if they would back out to the left, blocking the vehicles that were trying to get the same spot. He agreed. I took the spot he saved for me. As I pulled into the spot, a lady drove up and I thought she may crash into the side of my truck and she rolled her window down and cursed at me and shouted obscenities. She said here husband was inside and dying of cancer, and I was the SOB that took here parking spot. Needless to say, I was experiencing some anxiety, and chest discomfort. I said mam, I am really sorry, but I may be having a heart attack, and I am 10 minutes late for my appointment right now. I quickly left my vehicle, and rushed to the door to find the cardiology department. When I got to the window, I was not about 15 minutes late for the scheduled appointment. The receptionist said I was late, and may have missed my chance for an appointment. She could see I was not doing well and asked me to come into the office further. The doctor came out, and told her I was late. After some discussion, and them reading the frustration on my face, the doctor said Sir, if you could set in the waiting room for a few minutes, we will try and get you in. I agreed with that and took a chair. There is more to this story. but I will stop here for now. After what happened next, I was prepared to personally call John McCain and my Texas Senator, John Cornyn. My wife calmed me down when I got home. I ended up making an appointment with a cardiologist outside the VA. The difference in service was day and night. From the time that I walked in the door at the cardiologists office, I was treated with dignity. The receptionist, the staff and everyone there was smiling, polite and helpful. I sat in a chair for 5 minutes, got in and from that point on, I felt confident that I was dealing with someone that calmed me down, and made me feel like I was in good hands. This all happened just couple weeks before the story broke on the news about the Phoenix VA being responsible for 40 some deaths. There are lots more details, but too much for here. I would like to be interviewed by someone in the News or the VA about more details of my experiences with the VA. I think I could be helpful in making them understand some things that just don't get covered or understood in the daily News Casts. I am a Viet Nam Vet, and this has been one of the most disappointing experiences of my life. I am not ready to let this go. I want to do what I can to make the right people aware so they can fix this American Tragedy. Batavus at AOL Dot Com

cowboyup

May 22, 2014 - 11:24am

Good Luck FedUpVet, I wrote to both Senator Flake and McCain on my issues with Tucson VA almost one year ago with no response. I sent another message out to Flakes Office one day ago. I'm not expecting any response. However, at least I'm keeping all records of outreach to both Arizona Senators. They may be claiming their really busy with this scandal. Yet, nothing was going on last year when all VA's stalling was going on. I have a Cancer Screening next month outside the Tucson VA. Whats really freaky is 2 weeks ago the Nurse from Ironwood clinic stated the Hospital Administrator wanted me to come in ASAP for treatment. That freaked me out. He's not even my Doctor, then the Chief Doctor of that clinic called and said the same thing. They made my heart race, combat stress levels were spiking, I'm now afraid of treatments only because I may be the next Veteran Victim. If I died while serving my country, I died with Honor. If I die at the Hands of those who "Should" be caring for me, then how shameful and twisted our Veteran Health Care has become. And it's all about money for a life. Sad, very Sad. SGT John T.

cowboyup

May 20, 2014 - 1:19pm

As an OIF Veteran, I have been delayed several times by the Tucson Az. Veterans Hospital. They can't keep a Doctor more than a year in most cases. And when I was told I have a new Doctor, I requested an appointment so he will know I'm not just a number and or branded by his staff of nurses. The answer from Ironwood clinic was my next appointment is at the end of this year unless its an emergency. So, next month I have an outside appointment for a Cancer Screening. I reckon as a Combat Veteran Phoenix isn't the only Hospital. This issue has been going on more than a year, almost two years now. There was a time when I needed one on one PTSD council. I went to the Tucson VA who sent me to Sierra Vista. That appointment failed big time. I was spilling out my emotions when this "VA Counselor's" phone started vibrating. He puts his hand in front of me and walks out the door to speak with whom ever. Then 5 min. later he walks in apologizes and says continue. I was getting upset when his phone went off again. And "Again" He walks out of the office, this time I was right behind him and stated to him. "It's people like you who give Veterans the feeling of hopelessness, anger, and suicidal thoughts". And I never went back, nor care too. There are great medical personnel within the VA system. Some I have worked with at a time when Veterans "ALL VETERANS" were cared for with equal equality and quantity. I also feel the Ratings Phoenix Office is involved in these delays and Veterans are dying daily waiting on fair ratings as well. Sgt. T

Brett Wilson

May 19, 2014 - 4:27pm

i am a veteran out of phoenix az, its funny that not one of these comments say anything negative, like someone is reading and deleting the ones that stated any issue, the reason i think its funny is that every single person in my family was or has served in one branch or another add that to the hundreds i know from my service, NOT ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE HAS HAD AN ACCEPTABLE EXPERIENCE, but the only ones you find on here have all had such great things to say, well to those people if they are in fact real i say congrats you are the .00001% of vets our government promised to take care of!!!!!!!!!

Helen Hotaling

May 16, 2014 - 3:27pm

No, I am not a Vet, however, my husband was. He was very sick at the time he was diagnosed with cancer, it had spread from his lungs into other areas. I will tell everyone this and I will say it until I die. My husband was treated with the best care that he could possibly have gotten and had the best doctor he could possibly have had. He was seen anytime he needed to be and treated so nice and professionally. And I would like to say that, no I did not have the "wool pulled over my eyes". I knew exactly what was going on every step of the way. There is only one time, that I ever had a problem at VA and it was a doctor who saw my husband because my husbands doctor was not available. I lasted not quite 5 minutes with this doctor talking to my husband and walked out. When I complained it was handled immediately and we never saw that doctor again. I am sorry that so many people had so many problems, but, again I would not trade the VA for any other care for my husband. As a matter of fact my husband tried for over four months to get a doctor at Luke to pay attention to a lump in his throat and we were constantly told it was a "SWOLLEN GLAND". That "SWOLLEN GLAND" TURNED OUT TO BE SMALL CELL CANCER WHICH HAD GONE OUT OF CONTROL. It started in the lungs and spread throughout the body. I guess the reason I am writing this is so that all VA is not judged by what a few did. There are good people, great people as far as I am concerned.

Kenneth Burtch Jr.

May 17, 2014 - 12:38am

Thank you for your comments on the VA. I too, like your husband,have the utmost confidence in the VA here in Saginaw, Michigan. I have had other doctors outside the VA, and I would not trade all of them for Dr. Dennis Malloy, my primary provider, at the Saginaw, VA. Thank you for having the courage to express your thoughts.

Wayne Canales

May 16, 2014 - 11:03am

I've had nothing but great experiences at both the Milwaukee VA (my primary care facility) and the one time I went to the Phoenix VA emergency room, which turned into treatment for a kidney stone and 2 follow up visits with a urologist. The staff at both facilities have treated me with kindness and respect, never rude or impersonal. I don't believe I'm the only one who has had good experiences at the VA. Let's not condemn the system for what could be a few bad people doing the wrong things.

Bob Cecil

May 16, 2014 - 10:51am

Thank you Vets for speaking up as well when you, like I , DO receive Great Medical Care from our respective VA Medical Centers! I have watched The Portland, Oregon and Vancouver Washington VA (facility and personnel alike) strive for, and achieve the highest levels of professional designations through their dedication, hard work, and good leadership. These are compassionate, caring, professional individuals are "MY VA"! I've watched these folks become motivated to achieve excellence, I've watched them achieve the highest of Nursing excellence award , this reached through years of focus in all aspects of Nursing toward excellence activities. There were evident strands of good leadership top-to bottom, as there are today. It's really cool and so clearly indict active of broad staff vesting in the Veterans they are dedicated to serve, and have come to be called logically, "My Veterans" I am speaking up as have other veteran men and women to bring balanced resolution in the present anger and pain Brought out by the growing exposition (in the Plural form ) of clearly catastrophic problems in the Southwest Regional VA Medical Center(s). Please stop saying that "All of the V.A." is screwed up, that is simply and absolutely NOT true. I am sure that I've made myself very clear about my own positive on-going treatments here in "MY VA" ? What has not been said is that I also believe that being co-located with the Oregon Health Science University (O.H.S.U. Is a Teaching Hospital ) with all its endless newest, and most noble learnings DO go BOTH WAYS on the connecting Sky- Bridge! MORE than perhaps a great thing, but that obviously is only possible in a Metro setting. None the less; I do want to say, that I sincerely am thankful, and deeply grateful that my medical ,dental, Pharmaceutical , visual, etc. treatments continue to be excellent on all fronts here at the Portland/Vancouver VA Medical Centers! I salute the men and women of "MY VA" for all that they do for us! NOT ALL IS BAD , NOPE NOT AT ALL!

Gail Francisco

May 15, 2014 - 9:28pm

I get great care from the Palo Alto VA Medical Center in California. It has also improved greatly from 10 years ago. Better receptionists and it looks like better training. I did change from one PCP doctor to another one because I didn't feel like they really cared. Appt times are much better compared to 10 years ago. I have been to different VA centers across the country. Palo Alto is fantastic. But, as they say, you've seen one VA, you've seen one VA. They are not all the same. The variability in care is based upon how progressive and how good each VISN Director is and how good the hospital administrator is.

ed rosa

May 15, 2014 - 6:24pm

i have been going to the northport va in long island ny for about 15 years and i can honestly say i get nothing but great care all my appointments are in a timely fashion my doctor and all the nurses i see treat me with nothing but respect. so not all va mc are the same and i can go on for 20 min.saying what great care i get.

william scott

May 15, 2014 - 5:53pm

I HAD A FOREIGN DOCTOR WHO NOT LISTEN TO ANY THING I HAD TO SAY ALL HE WOULD DO IS LOOK ON HIS COUMPTER.I ASK TO SEE THE PATIENT ADVOCATE I WAS TOLD SHE WAS BUSY.I LEFT MY NUMBER ASK FOR HER TO CALL ME BACK SHE NEVER DID CALL.I CALL BACK SEVERAL TIMES STILL NO LUCK. I ASK FOR ANOTHER DOCTOR I WAS TOLD THEY DIDNOT ANY OTHER DOCTOR WHO COULD SEE ME. THE NEXT TIME I SAW THIS DOCTOR I HAD TO WAITIN THE EXAMING ROOM OVER 1AND HALF HOURS AND WHEN HE CAME IN HE WAS VRRY RUDE.

Jeffrey Dennison

May 15, 2014 - 9:05am

I am a concerned disabled Vet. This problem in Phoenix sounds criminal to me. This sounds something like criminal neglect resulting in the deaths of many United States Veterans. This was done for money, bonuses paid by the United States Government. This Crime was committed in Arizona. Why isn't the State of Arizona prosecuting this massive crime. Are they afraid of the Federal Government.

cowboyup

May 20, 2014 - 3:06pm

Our Governor is very upset. However the Federal folks can tell the state to back off. Senator McCain and Flake are looking into these matters. However, both of them 9 months ago signed the bill that takes away benefits to retired and disabled veterans. So that being said, it's more of a donkey&Pony Show. Or lets check the box for our next election. Veterans are screwed period. Sad but in ALL OF ARIZONA this crap is still going on behind closed doors. TORT LAW is the only way to slam these idiots who are killing us. And Delaying us on Medical Care as Well As Fair and Just Ratings.

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