The way I see the state of the way our Federal government deals with US Military Veterans they are in breech of contract. I have some personal experience with the VA, not all of it good. It is illustrative and indicative of what is actually going on.
First of all, the problem is not in the clinics or hospitals, per se. From my experience, the medical professionals who work for the VA are dedicated, caring people. They are overworked and understaffed. The reason is that the other side of the VA, the administration and bureaucracy, is as bloated as any other government agency. The money allocated to take care of the veterans is squandered and wasted on paper pushers. Heaven forbid a veteran is seriously ill and decides, out of necessity, to use his or her VA benefits. The ensuing process of filing and application to even have a first check up may extend beyond the Veteran’s ability to survive it.
A couple of years ago, I started the process to receive my VA benefits. I served int he US Air Force. I was one of the lucky ones. Although where I served was technically a war zone I didn’t get shot. I never lost a limb or had to be treated in a military hospital for anything more serious than the flu. My son was born in a military hospital in Korea. I think that constituted the largest expense the government had to pay on my behalf.
After years of working in retail, eating late at night and going to bed – or worse staying up and having a few beers before turing in for the night. – I developed a weight problem. Also I had aches and pains associated with getting older and being overweight. There was swelling my my ankles that concerned everyone as it indicates other problems, some wight he heart. Since I had open heard surgery in 1995, those things need to be monitored. So it was determined that I needed to have a check-up. It had been several years since last I made time for a physical.
Out of work and basically homeless, I was staying with my sister in Tampa Bay. She insisted I have a check up at the VA just to make certain there was nothing wrong – since I had benefits, right? No big deal because it should be free. After all, I served my time in the military. The government promised to take care of me. And that discharge paper they told me to hang onto when I left the service was somewhere in my important papers. Amazingly, I found it without too much trouble.
The Form DD214 was actually a two part carbon paper document. And, of course, when I went to the VA clinic that was closest to my sister’s house – actually a few miles up the road – they informed me I brought the wrong copy. So, I had to make another trip. I was relying on my bother-in-law to drive me around, since I no longer had a car. So it inconvenienced two people instead of one. The copy of the form they needed had an all important extra couple of lines of information they needed. You’d think that the government would know everything about me and have the information in a computer somewhere – but they didn’t. The complications were just a prelude of what was to come.
Once I returned withe the correct copy of the form, they initiated my claim for benefits and told me that as soon as I was registered int eh system they would set up an appointment for me. Also I would have to go through an orientation session where they would explain my benefits and their services. Things were underway…I thought.
After about a month I received a letter from the VA informing me that based on my income the previous year I was not eligible for free health care – even though I was presently out of work. However, I could submit a form, which was included, and be reconsidered for hardship. I filled out the form and several weeks later I received a letter of approval, stating that I was now approved for free health care under my VA benefits. I scheduled an appointment for my initial physical examination, blood work and the like that had to be done prior to seeing a doctor. About a week later I received another letter from the VA informing me that although my medical services were covered 100% any prescription drugs would require a co-pay because, yes, I had income the previous year in excess of what was allowed for a waiver of the charge. I sent a response, reiterating that I was unemployed, had no income or unemployment benefits, was homeless and living with a relative. Their response was that according to their regulations, because I had income the previous year in excess of a certain amount, I was not eligible to have the co-pay waived under hardship but that I could reapply in the next year if my income situation did not change.
Okay, well, I just won’t be able to buy prescriptions, right? Or I would have to borrow the money from my sister which I shouldn’t have to do in the first place. The co-pay was a token amount, really. I’m sure the government saw it that way when the decided to impose it on veterans seeking prescriptions. But when you aren’t making any money at all, a few bucks is a lot.
Finally, I had my physical. The doctor told me what I already knew. I was overweight, my blood pressure was borderline high and I needed to exercise and watch what I eat. Otherwise there was nothing wrong with me. However, since I was over fifty, to continue with my benefits I would need to have a check for prostrate cancer. I scheduled the appointment. And the doctor gave me a prescription for something to reduce my blood pressure. The latter my sister paid for the co-payment saying she didn’t want me to go without it.
A process that began in July had seen me through to October. I went to the VA hospital – my brother-in-law drove me there – to see a doctor about scheduling an appointment for a colonoscopy. Again I had to make two trips to accomplish one thing. The procedure was explained to me and the appointment was scheduled for December. Later on, they sent me a container of really foul smelling and even worse tasting stuff that leaves the tongue feeling as if it has licked a dead fish. They promised it would would flush me out. On the day before the procedure I needed to drink the whole thing over the course of a few hours and suffer through the consequences of purging my bowels. Oh, yes, of course there was a co-payment applied to the stuff that was sent to me to take.
Following the procedure, to which my brother-in-law drove me yet again, I was told they found nothing wrong – which was good news. A month later my blood pressure prescription ran out. They told me I needed to schedule another appointment with a doctor to receive a new one, but the next appointment available was in March. They would, however, extend my prescription. Again, co-payments were applied and by now I was receiving bills for the token amount that I couldn’t pay and threatening to send it to collections.
Again I called about the co-pays and was informed that even though I had very little income the previous year and was now eligible for a waiver of the co-pay that because I had income the previous year in excess of what was allowed I still owed the co-pay. And if I didn’t pay it it would be turned over to the IRS for collection. I was also told there was nothing I could do to change any of that because the law clearly stated that I was ineligible for a waiver of the co-pay.
I still owe that money and, now that I have a part time job, I suppose that whenever I pay my taxes for this year that will be charged against my refund.
In light of my experiences with the VA, I have some thoughts. Again, nothing against the medical professionals int he system. they are kind, polite, professional and caring people who really make the effort to take care of their patients. The red tape involved in getting benefits which are promised to service members as part of the reward for military service is what is clogging the system and wasting the money that should be directed to taking care of veterans who actually need to use the hospitals and clinics. I’m fortunate int at there is nothing seriously wrong with me. However, had I had serious problems I’m not sure what would have happened to me. Months to get approved, months to see a doctor and a convoluted and confusing system to administer the benefits upon approval with inflexible regulations that do not define extenuating circumstances on claims.