The American Legion holds a System Worth Saving town hall meeting to discuss VA issues in Phoenix on Monday, March 20, 2017. Photo by Lucas Carter.

Big veteran turnout for Legion town hall in Phoenix

Nearly 100 veterans attended an American Legion System Worth Saving town hall meeting March 20 at the Luke Greenway American Legion Post 1 in Phoenix to share their good and bad experiences about the Phoenix VA Health Care System with VA hospital administrators, congressional representatives and National Headquarters staff from the D.C. office.

The Phoenix VA hospital was at the epicenter of a scandal in 2014 wherein many veterans were denied care, experienced extremely long wait times or died while awaiting treatment. During the town hall meeting, medical center director RimaAnn Nelson, along with representatives from Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., and other notable elected officials’ offices, heard personal challenges and struggles that veterans have faced with the state’s health-care system.

“Last January, I was (supposed to receive) oxygen. I still (haven't received it),” said veteran Jay David, who also told the audience that he was receiving bills from a civilian doctor for $950 for unpaid office visits.

Other veterans criticized the VA’s patient advocacy program, including Mike Woods who said he was nearly killed. “I was nearly killed by the VA here,” said Woods. “The only reason I’m here is because I qualified for Medicaid and got some help. Our guys’ problem here is that if we are having a problem with our VA doctor or VA health care, we don’t have a person to go to.”

However, some veterans praised the care they receive by the VA. Larry Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former Army Cobra pilot, gave a glowing review about the counseling he is receiving for PTSD.

“My two psychiatrists at the VA are my pillars of strength, and my medical treatment and mental health care at the VA has been excellent … exceptional,” Webb said. “Next to my wife, they are the two most important people in my life to depend on.”

Chris Diaz, a young National Guard veteran who fought in Iraq, agreed and said his first experience at the VA hospital was incredible. Having experienced post-duty respiratory problems, Diaz is thankful for the timely care he received which helped cast away his worries. “I lost my health insurance and had no idea I could receive treatment at the VA,” he said. “I got sick and was coughing up blood, which was really scary for me. I went to the VA and was seen immediately, diagnosed and treated within two hours.”

Dr. Sue Sisley of the Scottsdale Research Institute also briefed those in attendance on the landmark research she is conducting into the medicinal application of cannabis for treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We are very proud to be the first and only randomized control trial in the world looking at cannabis for PTSD,” said Sisley. “This is the only FDA approved trial happening anywhere, and it’s happening here in our home state of Arizona.”

Army veteran Dan Schmink, who is president and founder of the Southwest Healing Group, praised The American Legion for its official resolution on the issue and demanding more research into the therapeutic value of cannabis. “I love what The American Legion is doing with the resolution last year to push for cannabis rescheduling – it’s a great thing,” Schmink said. “We need to do more. When I go to the VA, they are barred from providing me information about resources and clinical studies.”

Prior to the town hall meeting, American Legion Executive Director Verna Jones and Media Relations Director Joe Plenzler visited Camp Pulaski, aka Alpha Base, a camp site for homeless veterans who had been staying there since late last year. The visit came on the heels of recent news reports about Arizona Department of Transportation officials forcing the homeless veterans to shut down and relocate their camp, a site officials said is located on state-owned property.

The homeless veterans were in the process of relocating to an alternative site in Phoenix, but local police denied them access to a privately-owned lot due to conflicts with zoning laws. City officials also did not offer an alternate location for the veterans.

Jeff Kagan, a civilian volunteer working with a homeless intake group called Veterans on Patrol in Phoenix, spoke about the many challenges faced by homeless veterans. “We had an amputee who was pushed out of his wheelchair and had his money and phone stolen,” he said during the town hall meeting. “That’s what’s going on the streets to the veterans who have nowhere to go. They came back to no wife, no kids, no family, no nothing.”

The American Legion received a donation from a local Walmart of more than $300 worth of supplies for delivery to the homeless veterans, that included water, food and medical resources. Local service officers at the town hall meeting connected with other volunteers to arrange housing and access to services for the homeless veterans.

Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission Chairman Ralph Bozella wrapped up the town hall meeting by stating that a System Worth Saving report will be produced as soon as possible. "We are working shoulder to shoulder with VA for the same goals,” said Bozella. “And that is to improve access and quality of health care.”