Veterans share personal experiences at Phoenix VA

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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.