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VA still a hot issue in Phoenix

VA still a hot issue in Phoenix
American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division Director Verna Jones (right) listens as Vietnam veteran Teodoro Marquez shares his VA experience during a town hall meeting at American Legion Post 1 in Phoenix on June 9, 2014. (Photo by Nick Cote)

On May 13, The American Legion conducted a town hall meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., so veterans could share their concerns and stories about the health care they receive at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. More than 200 veterans and their families attended, and dozens shared their insight.

Less than a month later, a similar town hall in a similar setting in Phoenix reiterated that veterans in the area still have many concerns about their care and access to it, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs willingness to pay for that care if it is sought elsewhere.

American Legion Post 1 hosted the standing-room only meeting where dozens of more veterans and their family members expressed concerns, anger and gratitude toward VA. Legion staff was on hand to talk one on one with many of the veterans before the nearly three-hour meeting concluded.

Also on hand were numerous Department of Arizona Legionnaires, including Department Commander Judi Beischel, who said she had a close friend waiting to get into to see a VA urologist. Because he couldn’t get in to see the VA doctor, he had been referred to a private sector doctor.

“I asked him how his appointment went, and he said, ‘They wanted to do a procedure, but the VA didn’t authorize it so they rescheduled me for July 11,'” Beischel said. “He died last night, so they can add one more to the count.

“We aren’t going to give up until we get it fixed.”

Ralph Bozella, chairman of the Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force, said veterans deserve a health-care system designed specifically for them. “We believe the VA should deliver that product in the right way,” he said. “The American Legion is here as a partner with VA. How can we help the VA serve you better? The things we hear tonight, every one of them, will be followed up on.”

Both Bozella and Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said that now that specific problems have been identified within VA, it’s time to look at fixes.

“We need to move beyond the scandal, and that’s why we’re here: to work together to do what we can to move this agenda forward and hopefully get the VA back on track in Phoenix and other locations for one particular purpose – so the veteran gets that health care that he or she deserves,” Bozella said.

The meeting came just hours after VA's Office of Inspector General released the results of a nationwide access audit that revealed thousands of VA patients waited months for medical appointments, and that VA employees falsified records in order to hide those long wait times.

The topic of VA employees receiving bonuses while falsifying such records was a touchy one for some who spoke. “We need to stop giving bonuses to these people for doing their jobs,” one veteran said. “If they don't do their jobs, fire them.”

One veteran said he’d seen Legion efforts making a difference. He’d been seeking a VA doctor’s appointment for six months before being called last week to find out he had an appointment for this week. "I would like to thank everyone who is doing all this work,” he said. "I believe it is starting to work.”

Other veterans and their family members had issues with the care – or lack of – they’d received. One veteran said he went to a VA eye doctor and was told there was nothing wrong with his eye. When he went to the private sector he immediately was treated. Now, he said, VA won’t pay for the treatment he was forced to seek elsewhere.

Another veteran said he went to the Phoenix VA in 2013 after he developed a golf ball-size lump in his arm. After waiting months to see a doctor, he went to the Mayo Clinic last month where he was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma that has spread throughout his body. He now has months to live; had it been diagnosed earlier, the veteran said, it may have been able to be treated.

Others expressed frustration with the VA benefits side. An Iraq veteran said he was told his injury wasn’t service-connected – despite the fact his VA medical records show that the injury occurred while he was deployed in Mosul, Iraq.

The meeting ended after more than 30 veterans and their family members had spoken. “We’ve heard what you’ve said tonight,” Jones said. “So many of you have said thank you to us, but you’re the heroes. You’re why we’re here. You are why we had the opportunity to come here and do this.”

In addition to numerous local media representatives, state representatives Kelly Townsend and Jonathan Larkin also were in attendance. Townsend said she is working with other legislators and the governor to draft legislation making it illegal to manipulate patient info at medical facilities within Arizona.

VA spokeswoman Maureen Heard, a New Hampshire Legionnaire, said a command center has been activated in Phoenix that is drawing mobile medical personnel from Texas, Wyoming and Mississippi. She also said VA is leasing space within the community and has brought human resources from VA Central Office to help in hiring open positions at the facility.

“Caring for our nation's veterans is a sacred mission,” said Heard, a U.S. Air Force veteran. “We are working diligently to rebuild the trust of our veterans, our community and the nation that entrusts us with this duty. We have broken that trust.”

Bozella and Legion staff were to meet with Phoenix VA staff this morning to share concerns brought up during the town hall meeting. And starting at noon today, the Legion is setting up a Crisis Command Center at Post 1 to help veterans and family members affected by the health-care scandal in Phoenix.

A “triage team” will be on site to identify problems of those who visit the center, then direct them to appropriate stations on site for benefits claims, enrollment and bereavement counseling. At the same time, four dedicated phone lines will be available for veterans to call in and ask questions about their VA health care, benefits and any other issues relating to VA. Volunteers from the Red Cross and representatives from Arizona congressional offices also will be at Post 1.

The Legion is planning on hosting similar town hall meetings and crisis centers in other communities impacted by the VA crisis. Bozella hopes the effort expands farther than that.

“Something I learned tonight just by listening to these people – ‘We ought to be doing this at our post,’” he said. “You really don’t need to have national people, staff, the chairman of this and that to come out here to make this happen. We’re showing this model. Now what I think we need to start doing is developing the model so the local post can start asking their own people in their own community what’s going on … take it to the VA hospital in your own community. Get the press there. That’s important. That’s what I would love to see.”

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