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During the Vietnam War, U.S. Marine Frank Monica of Toledo spent nearly two years dumping, destroying, and detonating ammunition and bombs. Exposure to the various chemicals eventually left him so ill that he was diagnosed by the military as 100 percent disabled.
Forty-four years later, Mr. Monica, 65, and millions of other veterans are battling a foe that seems undefeatable — the bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, a government organization whose sworn mission is to provide health care and other benefits to veterans.
It’s a mission that the V.A. has been failing for decades, some Toledo-area veterans said. Veterans like Mr. Monica say they’ve been put on waiting lists to be treated for health problems, discouraged from seeking financial benefits promised to them, and allegedly have been misdiagnosed by doctors and psychiatrists not familiar with veterans’ health issues.
RELATED ARTICLE: Audit: Over 57,000 awaiting initial V.A. visits
“I’m legally blind in my left eye and have a cataract in my right eye, but I’m told the earliest they might be able to see me is late October because they only have one operating room,” said Mr. Monica, referring to the Ann Arbor V.A. hospital.
Vision in his right eye is limited to squinting. When he goes outside, he must wear sunglasses or the sun causes him pain. It also prevents him from driving at night.
“I’m the primary caregiver for my 95-year-old dad, a World War II veteran,” Mr. Monica said. “I know it’s dangerous, but I have to drive him to the grocery store and his doctor appointments. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
He’s asked the V.A. if they would allow a nonmilitary surgeon to remove the cataract — about a $3,000 procedure, but the V.A. has denied his request, Mr. Monica said.
Derek Atkinson, public affairs officer for the V.A. Ann Arbor Healthcare System, was initially contacted June 3 but refused to answer questions directly, insisting instead that questions be put in writing. Mr. Atkinson repeatedly said the information would be provided two days later, last Thursday.
Among the information requested included whether the facility had a waiting list, how many veterans are on that list, and what the average wait time is for veterans seeking treatment. Late Friday afternoon, Mr. Atkinson contacted The Blade.
“We’re certainly not refusing to comment,” Mr. Atkinson said. “But there has been a holdup. I’m not going to be able to get all the information we’re looking for until next week ... hopefully by the middle of next week.”
The agency’s foot-dragging comes at a time when its health-care system’s deep-seated problems have faced intense national scrutiny. According to its Web site, the V.A. provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.
An inspector general’s recent report found a Phoenix V.A. hospital missed care for 1,700 veterans and that up to 40 patients may have died while awaiting care. The average wait for those Phoenix veterans was 115 days, according to the report.
The Phoenix scandal prompted Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign on May 30.
The agency’s stated goal nationwide is to give patients an appointment within 14 days. Acting Secretary of Veteran Affairs Sloan D. Gibson said on Friday that immediate measures are being taken to address problems.
“No veteran should ever have to wait to receive the care they have earned through their service and sacrifice,” Mr. Gibson said in a prepared statement. “As the President said last week, we must work together to fix the unacceptable, systemic problems in accessing V.A. health care. I believe that trust is the foundation for everything we do — V.A. must be an organization built on transparency and accountability.
“That’s why we will release results from our nationwide audit, along with patient access data, for all medical centers [today]. The data will demonstrate the extent of the systemic problems we have discovered.”
These changes are long overdue, said Toledo’s Amanda Krueger, whose husband Mark, a U.S. Army veteran, has been battling the agency over health-care issues since being discharged in 2012. Mr. Krueger, a combat medic, served two tours in Iraq during his service in the military from 2005-12.
Since his return, he’s made at least two trips a month to agency offices in Ann Arbor, Cleveland, Detroit, and Parma for testing and treatment because the V.A. won’t allow him to see local physicians, Mrs. Krueger said.
She said treatment has often been subpar, with one physician challenging Mr. Krueger about an injury and denying him treatment, until the Kruegers realized the doctor had examined the wrong foot. The Kruegers were then forced to reschedule and wait several months to drive back and see the same doctor, they said. It took 18 months to get disability benefits, even though the agency had given Mr. Krueger a 90 percent disability rating.
Despite constant migraines and frequent instances of confusion, the V.A. initially ruled that Mr. Krueger did not have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, his wife said. Mr. Krueger appealed, but the agency canceled his May 2 doctor’s appointment, 45 minutes before it was to begin, his wife said. The appointment has been rescheduled for late July.
“The one thing that gets to me is that the veterans kept their part of the bargain; they defended this country,” Mrs. Krueger said. “But the government hasn’t kept their part; taking care of the veterans.”
Veterans like Mr. Krueger and Mr. Monica would be able to receive care from a doctor or provider of their choice outside of the agency under a bill being co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio). The Veterans Choice Act of 2014, which was announced last week, has been referred to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Army veteran Bryan Crosby, 45, of Toledo said the V.A. has helped him in the past, but he believes the agency’s culture needs to change. Navigating through the bureaucracy and filing the proper paperwork is challenging for someone like him who is “computer illiterate” and gets easily overwhelmed by tasks, Mr. Crosby said.
Mr. Crosby recently turned to the Lucas County Veterans Service Commission for help, but a misunderstanding caused the agency to turn him away. The agency provides emergency financial and supportive assistance, as well as benefit advocacy, to veterans of Lucas County.
Lee Armstrong, executive director of the veterans agency, said Mr. Crosby’s appointment has been rescheduled for Tuesday, and staff will be instructed to be more patient and take more time to walk him through the process.
Mr. Crosby, 45, served in the U.S. Army from 1995-99. After years of being addicted to crack cocaine, Mr. Crosby said he has been drug-free since December, 2008, and has slowly been putting his life together. All he is asking is to be treated with the same respect that he treats others with, he said.
“All I ask is treat the veteran right,” Mr. Crosby said. “Treat them like the soldiers they are. From the high class, to the middle class, to the low class, treat them right. Treat them like the soldiers they are.”
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.