(Photo by Jared Wickerham / Wick Photography)

Pittsburgh veterans voice concerns with local VA

Pittsburgh military veterans made their voices heard during The American Legion’s most recent System Worth Saving (SWS) town hall meeting led by Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission Chairman Ralph Bozella and Past National Commander Ronald Conley. Attendees included local military veterans, the Legion’s Department of Pennsylvania leadership, state congressional staff, Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System (VAHCS) leadership and Legion national staff from Washington, D.C.

Many of the concerns voiced by veterans at the meeting referenced the controversial Choice program where military veterans are given the option to seek care outside of the VA and have VA pay their bill. But more often than not, veterans have complained that late payments from VA have negatively impacted their credit ratings. Choice was implemented in 2014 to help alleviate long wait times at VA.

“It doesn’t work the way that it was intended, and it is not financially feasible,” said American Legion Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division Director Louis Celli. He added that any future expansion or extension of Choice not only would place a financial burden on military veterans, but also on VA since it would exceed the department’s $165 billion budget by more than a whopping $435 billion.

One veteran stated that the service he has received at private practices through Choice have been poor in comparison to his primary care at the VA. “They don’t know how to deal with veterans and veterans’ issues,” he said. After receiving negative MRI results at a private health care facility, the veteran went to his local VA, where providers found a cancerous lump in his throat and were able to provide him with life-saving treatment.

In addition to Choice, participants were also disgruntled with navigating the complexities of other programs within the VA system. “I feel like they’re shoving me under the rug,” said Todd Glotfelty, who has had difficulty receiving a wheelchair from the local VA. He alleges that the VA denied his claim for a wheelchair because his home does not meet standards for disability devices. “That’s blatant discrimination,” Glotfelty strongly expressed. The wheelchair previously provided to Glotfelty by the VA did not adequately support his rugged lifestyle as a hunter, but VA agreed to work with him to provide him with a more all-terrain wheelchair.

VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System Acting Associate Director Alan Petrazzi offered to personally help the veterans in attendance. “We’re concerned about the issues that we are hearing tonight,” he said. “Please give us a change to rectify these problems.”

While phone wait times were an issue for Pittsburgh VAHCS in the past, Petrazzi added that its records indicate that those wait times have decreased from 45 minutes to mere seconds. But one veteran’s testimony told a different story.

“You can’t get through,” said the veteran, who has had issues contacting the VA to refill his prescriptions and receiving them by mail in a timely fashion. But his concerns with the long phone wait times went beyond his own. “Suppose there is a military veteran [calling] who wants to commit suicide?” he asked. “You can’t get through.”

Dave MacMillan – congressional staffer for Michael Doyle, D-Pa. – concluded the meeting with a letter from Doyle. “As the son of a World War II combat veteran, Congressman Doyle is deeply aware of the hardships that our armed forces endure on the battlefield, the sacrifices that they make, and the challenges they face when they return home …When news broke about the long waiting times at VA health care facilities across the country in 2014, [Doyle] worked with Congressman Murphy to find out how long veterans were really waiting for care at the Pittsburgh VA. Once they learned that some veterans had been waiting two years for appointments, they put on a full-court press to get those veterans the care they needed and eliminate unreasonable waiting times.”

To rectify many of these concerns, The American Legion’s Department of Pennsylvania and Legion national staff met with Pittsburgh VAHCS leadership and staff from different departments at the facility on Wednesday to assess processes and procedures that need improvement, and also evaluate what is working sufficiently. The SWS team compiles information from the meetings into a comprehensive report that is made available to the public through www.legion.org/systemworthsaving. The Legion also makes recommendations for improvement and creates an executive summary to send to Congress, the president and VA headquarters.

“If we want to be here for future veterans, leadership needs to understand the quality of care that we provide,” said Barbara Forsha, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System Deputy Director.

SWS was created and implemented by Conley almost 15 years ago. During his service as a national commander from 2002 to 2003, Conley visited more than 60 VA medical centers across the country and created SWS to continue improving the quality of care that the VA provides to the nation’s military veteran community. The SWS visit concluded on Wednesday with visits to the Pleasant Valley homeless shelter and local Vet Center.