Veterans Administration “death panels” have been in the news lately, first being discovered in Phoenix, now day by day being revealed across the nation.
I have been inside the Veterans Administration healthcare system for over a decade, and one phrase comes to mind: a “house of horrors.” Aside from casting aside old and infirm veterans too expensive to treat—the so-called “death panels”—going to a Veterans Hospital is always a nightmare: most of the staff treat us like second-class citizens. Veterans are placed in wheelchairs and gurneys and forgotten about. A wait to see a doctor is literally an all-day activity. You get there early in the morning, and you’re not done until five or six in the evening.
I once spent six hours in the emergency room with a gash in my arm inches from an artery. After six hours of bleeding on the floor and going in and out of consciousness, I was finally seen—not by a doctor, but by a very green medical student, who barely knew how to stitch up the wound. His incompetence later led to infection and a pronounced scar.
At the VA hospital, you always run into crackpots—not the veterans, but the staff. One doctor I saw spent an hour not attending to the excruciating pain in my hand (a separate incident), but telling me about a new religion he had discovered. I sat there while he printed out religious literature from a government computer on government time. Afterwards, I went to the “Patient Advocate Office”—where veterans are supposed to go if they have a problem. The “Advocate” told me I could fill out a complaint, but it was a waste of time. The doctor, being a government employee, the advocate explained, was “untouchable.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg of some of the things I’ve experienced at the Veterans Affairs’ “house of horrors.” Why do we go to the VA, often when have other avenues to obtain medical care? It’s the same for Thomas Breen, a 70-year-old veteran in Phoenix who was put on a phony waiting list that lasted months when he needed to be seen immediately. Breen’s wife explained that he was proud of his military service and refused to go anywhere else except the VA. Despite the VA being a “house of horrors,” there are other veterans around you—providing a feeling of camaraderie. Some of the staff, mostly veterans like you, do treat you with respect. So you continue to go—even though there’s a possibility the VA may actually kill you…which it did in Thomas Breen’s case.
Several years ago, I worked in the State of California’s Operation Welcome Home program. The multimillion dollar program was designed to help veterans recently discharged from the military after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. The computer system that generated the contact information for veterans was broken for several months, so the staff sat around and did nothing, playing video games and taking extended lunches. The supervisor, drawing a five-figure a year salary, rarely showed up. When I got tired of sitting around, I became proactive and visited a veterans homeless shelter on March Air Reserve Base. For two weeks, I helped veterans find jobs, typed up resumes, and helped them apply for disability. When my supervisor discovered I was doing something she didn’t authorize, I was reprimanded and told to go back to the office and sit around until the computer system was fixed.
When the veterans computer system was finally fixed, it became a numbers game. We used a program full of bugs called CVCS that was basically a telemarketing survey. The idea behind it was that the survey would help identify the needs of the veteran. Did they need help navigating the Veterans Administration? Did they need help finding a job, etc? But it quickly became a numbers game. The supervisor would often come storming into the office, waving a spreadsheet that showed we were not “producing.” It wasn’t whether veterans were actually being helped, but how many surveys you conducted. The program, full of bugs, would often erase any notes you generated about specific needs of the veteran. Despite this, despite the majority of the staff doing nothing most of the day, I worked very hard and helped many veterans find jobs and navigate the complexity of the Veterans Administration. At one point, I tried to blow the whistle on the bugs in the CVCS (among other things), seeing it was hurting the veterans we were hired to help, and was quickly fired—“laid off due to budget cuts” was the official word. I later found out that of the hundreds of staff throughout California in the Operation Welcome Home program, oddly I was the only one “laid off” due to budget cuts.
I ended up writing an exhaustive report about all the problems in the Operation Welcome Home program (click here for the report.) I sent it to various State of California and federal Veterans Administration whistleblowing officers. I received no response.
Veterans have been treated badly by the federal government for many years. And it probably won’t get any better any time soon. A step in the right direction, however, may be to get a President in the White House who doesn’t despise the military, veterans, and, most notably, the U.S. Constitution: the document that veterans bled and died to protect.