EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 1, 2014

Column: We owe it to veterans to fix VA hospitals

Barbara Anderson
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — With Memorial Day behind us, I’m afraid public attention to the ongoing VA scandal will vanish until we find out on Veterans Day that no one has done anything about it, yet, again.

Briefly, from the Associated Press: “Fake appointments, unofficial logs kept on the sly and appointments made without telling the patient are among tricks used to disguise delays in seeing and treating veterans at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics.

“They’re not a new phenomenon. VA officials, veteran service organizations and members of Congress have known about them for years ... ‘Cooking the books’ at VA hospitals has exploded into public view since allegations arose that up to 40 patients may have died at the Phoenix VA hospital while awaiting care ...”

Investigators are now trying to determine how widespread is the practice of falsifying records.

“It’s not that people haven’t brought this up before, it’s just the word ‘secret’ lists blew it up in the media,” Vietnam Veterans of America’s Richard Weidman said in an interview. “They weren’t secret, they were handwritten’ logs kept aside from computerized scheduling… People should stop the hysteria and say what the root of this problem is.”

Well, some of the hysteria has come from reports that some veterans who’ve died were suicides, mortally frustrated by their inability to get care -- as we learn that bonuses were given to VA employees who falsified the records to prove their own “competence.”

But I’m sure that Weidman is correct when he charges, according to AP, that “there are not enough medical personnel to meet the demand for VA health care.” He and other veterans groups “have complained for years that the VA budget -- though continually rising -- is too small to provide enough doctors, medical centers and services.”

However, the story notes that: “Independent reports have found that though access is a problem, VA care is equal to or better than that in the private sector.”

OK, we appreciate that information. If you get care, it’s really good.

I rarely miss the Memorial Day parade and cemetery service in Marblehead. But this year, as I watched wreathes being laid for each of the U.S. wars, I felt not just the usual gratitude for service, but embarrassment for my country. How could any veteran not receive the best of services from a grateful nation? Is the problem limited to a few mismanaged regions, or is it systemic?

That afternoon, I started my search for information from my World War II resource, Chip’s father William Ford of the 107th Evacuation Hospital, which served our wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. During the family lunch I asked “Woody”, now age 95, about his own experience with the Boston area VA hospitals; he says his care has been “excellent.” His daughter and Chip quickly noted that their extroverted father doesn’t mind the long social time in the waiting rooms.

Chip doesn’t use the VA. I was surprised to learn that the same is true of my previous boyfriend and my second husband, though all three are Vietnam-era vets. I emailed my first husband, a retired Navy officer, and he responded: “Sad situation...VA is just overwhelmed... huge #s of returning (and dispossessed/unemployed) vets who turn to the VA. DoD/VA spent huge $ on trying to automate their handoff process & found it to be ‘too hard’.”

He notes that his younger brother is getting good service locally, but that another brother who works at a lab is the only one qualified to run an assessment machine that handles four VA centers.

“I’d guess scheduling is a weak area, but they do well and are on the forefront of many areas of medicine, e.g., preventing SARS/infections, etc.,” my ex told me.

Good point. When you see the VA treating serious injuries and fitting amazing prosthetic devices, you realize that it’s in the forefront of many medical advances.

I was disappointed that no mention was made during Sunday evening’s televised Washington Memorial Day Concert, when the host actors could have reached a large audience about valid veteran concerns. However, the Marblehead memorial speaker, Marine Capt. Seth Moulton, had no such hesitation, referring to the “travesty of care by the VA which demands serious action and accountability.”

Odd as it seemed for the town to feature this year’s Democratic primary opponent of Congressman John Tierney, it’s hard to argue that Capt. Moulton, with his four tours of duty in Iraq, isn’t entitled to his opinion. His opening sentence: “I believe the Iraq War was a mistake, but as a Marine I didn’t want anyone to go in my place ...” seemed overly political for the memorial event, but it reminded me why I’ve come to think myself that the Iraq War was a mistake. I remember the exact moment I turned against it: when I saw a letter in a local paper from a soldier’s father, asking for help sending personal care items like cleansing wipes and, later, materials to create IED-resistant armor for Humvees in Iraq. Somehow I’d naively thought our government was supplying these essentials to its warriors.

What I really need is to consult with my neighbor, Marine aviation pioneer Don Humphries, but that’s no longer possible; his recent death is such a loss on so many fronts. I hope he’d agree with my conclusion here:

The primary reason we have government is defense. There is always room for argument about which wars are defensive and which unnecessary, and to warn that a government that runs permanent deficits perhaps can’t afford foreign adventure. However, once our country goes to war, the most important use of our tax dollars is supporting the defenders, both during and after service.

I know the VA does wonderful things and many veterans praise it. I also know something is terribly wrong with some parts of the system, and it should be the job of all congressmen, not to mention presidents, to fix it or admit their shame.

Barbara Anderson is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a regular contributor to the opinion pages.