Positives, negatives aired during VA town hall meeting

One week after conducting a similar meeting focused on the Phoenix VA Health Care System, The American Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force again gave veterans a chance to speak frankly about the care they receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

At a packed Legion Post 500 in Speedway, Ind., on May 19, SWS task force members, state and local Legionnaires and American Legion national staff – along with Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center personnel, congressional staff members and local media outlets – heard anecdotes from dozens of veterans about their experiences at Roudebush.

The 3-hour, 15-minute--minute meeting featured gut-wrenching stories of veterans who felt they’ve been let down by the health-care system designed specifically for their care, along with veterans singing the praises of their doctors and nurses.

“We believe that the VA is a system worth saving, but it needs some help right now,” said Verna Jones, the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division director and the town hall’s moderator. “Tonight is not about bashing the VA. But it’s not about being quiet, either.”

Since late April, VA has been in the national news on a daily basis for alleged secret waiting lists that resulted in veterans deaths, preventable patient deaths and “cooking the books” efforts to make it appear as those patients were being seen within the VA standard time. On May 5, American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger called for the resignations of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel and Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey. Petzel, who was scheduled to retire later this year, resigned on May 16.

Ralph Bozella, chairman of the SWS task force, said the recent VA crisis has created a much-needed national dialogue on the state of the health-care system. “When there are issues at your VA hospital, we need to know about it,” Bozella said.

Those issues were shared at Post 500.

• One Marine Corps veteran said his father was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that had gone undiagnosed for years by the hospital. Fifteen days later, his father was dead. “VA failed my father,” the son said.

• One veteran saida VA social worker told him, “If you're dealing with pain, keep dealing with pain.”

• A veteran who was a victim of military sexual trauma during her service said when she relayed to Roudebush supervisors that her doctor made her feel uncomfortable, she was told that it was her issue.

• A man said a nurse at the hospital told him what he needed to do was go home and die quietly. “I was in the Army,” he said. “I don't do nothing quietly."

• Another veteran complained of having to seek health care elsewhere when her issues weren’t resolved at Roudebush. “I shouldn't have to go to another hospital for treatment. I should be able to go to VA for care I so dearly paid for,” she said.

Another common theme throughout the night – and one that has been heard throughout VA – was the preponderance of prescribing medication immediately to deal with a condition. One veteran claimed to have been taking 15,000 pain pills a year. “We don't need pills,” another veteran said. “We need help, and we needed it yesterday.”

Others shared their positive experiences. “I would rather go to (Roudebush) than any hospital in the city of Indianapolis,” one veteran said. Another stated that the doctors were great; his issues were with the administrative staff at the hospital. And the wife of a patient said that while her husband “isn’t a general,” VA gave the two of them all the support they needed.”

Many veterans who spoke during the town hall then met with Legion officials one on one to discuss the possibility of filing benefits claims or seeking other assistance. Roudebush Director Thomas Mattice was on hand for the entire meeting and said those issues not addressed by Legion or VA staff during the town hall would be addressed as soon as possible.

“I think the majority of our 2,600 employees are at VA for the right reasons and are very dedicated to their jobs,” Mattice said. “With this information, we can say that, ‘OK, we didn’t get that one right. How can we make it right?’ And by hearing this, we can find out if an issue is related to a specific clinic or is a more generalized problem.”

Representatives from the offices of Sen. Joe Donnelly, Reps. Luke Messer, Jackie Walorski and Pete Visclosky attended the meeting, taking notes and talking with veterans.

Bozella and Jones are taking part in a two-day SWS site visit at Roudebush May 20-21.

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