Whether it’s overburdened, improperly run, or a combination of the two, veterans are struggling to get the health care they need from clinics and hospitals run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The issue has led to the resignation of the department’s longest-serving secretary, Eric Shinseki, and has been fodder in political campaign ads and debates.
In his seat as vice chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, has earned national media attention in recent months as he digs into what’s causing delays at VA-run medical centers, and what can be done to fix it. The Palm Harbor Republican has since opened the door to hear from veterans themselves, inviting them to a town hall meeting June 5 in New Port Richey to find out other struggles facing those who have returned home from war.
“We have an obligation to do whatever it takes to solve this problem,” Bilirakis said. “We must make sure that our veterans have access to a broad range of services that meet their specific needs,” he said.
Last month, Bilirakis co-authored a letter with U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, to then-Secretary Shinseki asking him to change internal policies at the VA to allow veterans easier access to programs like the Non-VA Care Coordination program that would allow veterans to seek subsidized health care from medical providers outside of the VA system.
Veterans who attended the recent town hall expressed some specific concerns with types of service they’ve received over the years — some dating back more than a decade — but many agreed problems are typically focused on routine care outside of the emergency room.
“The system has been broke for a long time, since I got out of the service in 1973,” said Michael O’Dell, who also is president of the Hillsborough County Veterans Council. The care he receives at the James A. Haley VA hospital near the University of South Florida’s main campus has always been good, as long as it’s been an emergency.
“This last time has not been an emergency, and they’ve been screwing around with my knees,” O’ Dell said. “When the doctors decided that I can’t take the pain anymore, they said it would take three or four months (for the surgery). Now with all this stuff going on (the controversy), they miraculously told me that they can operate in three weeks.”
One veteran, Peter Spatz, said he lives across the street from a VA medical center, and while he has had no problems with the care he receives once he gets there, where he really struggles is just trying to get in the front door.
“When I was hearing on the news all the problems with the VA, I didn’t really believe it,” he said. “I really felt that facility just ran like a Swiss watch, and I never had a single issue.”
However, Spatz has a condition that requires treatment, and he couldn’t see a doctor because they kept rescheduling him. He finally decided to reach out to the patient advocate line, but said no one was available to take his call.
“I was so frustrated, I didn’t know what to do,” Spatz said. “If you have a question you need answered, or a problem resolved on the phone, the fact that they have the audacity to (not man the lines) is just beyond belief. Something has to change on that.”
Bilirakis has been a sponsor of H.R. 4810, which passed the U.S. House last week unanimously, and has been sent to the U.S. Senate. If passed, the resolution would expand access to health care and other medical facilities for veterans outside of the VA system. It also requires the VA to conduct an independent investigation of its operations and create a plan of action to correct them within 120 days.
The Senate passed its own bill, which lawmakers say is similar to H.R. 4810, and both sides believe they can come together to finalize a bill to present to President Barack Obama.
Published June 18, 2014
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