SEBRING — Despite the bad press that VA medical clinics are getting, most local veterans don’t seem to share the same opinion.
The Veterans Administration Office of the Inspector General said 26 VA facilities are being investigated over whether they concealed long wait times for care by falsifying records. More than 40 veterans reportedly died and dozens more grew more ill while waiting for care in Phoenix.
If true, President Barack Obama said last week, it would be “dishonorable … disgraceful” and bad actors would be held accountable.
The issue has been politicized, but Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has been asked to resign by both Republicans and Democrats.
“The VA hospitals are on the leading edge on information technology,” said State Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park. “They are doing wonderful stuff.”
Also an emergency medical doctor and an Army lieutenant colonel, Pigman has never been a patient at a VA hospital, but he talks to veterans who have. “Most of the veterans seem satisfied,” Pigman said. “There is talk about lines and waits, but that can happen anywhere.”
“What the hell is all the hullabaloo about?” asked Robert Hart, a World War II radio operator in the Navy who returned home the day American dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. “At Bay Pines, I always received the finest care. They were always kind and considerate.”
It did take him four years to get a VA disability pension, he said, but the trick is to keep reapplying.
“I have had excellent care from the VA,” said Gerard Dewind, 66, a disabled veteran who goes to the Sebring Community-Based Outpatient Clinic and to Bill Young Bay Pines VA Hospital in St. Petersburg. “I had my eyes examined — it had been nine years, my fault — April 5, 2013 at the new VA Eye clinic at Bay Pines. They discovered I had a detached retina; a serious eye problem.
But the VA has a retina department. “I had a vitrectomy Nov. 5 at Tampa General Hospital by a USF medical school surgeon, paid 100 percent by the VA. A vitrectomy is when they suck out your inner eye (vitreous gel) and peel the detached retina off the back of your eyeball. They then put a gas bubble in your eye and you lay face down for 10 days as your retina re-attaches. I went from 20/200 to 20/40. I also get my hearing aids from Bay Pines. State of the art. Excellent care.”
Marlyn Drury, a former South Dakota rancher and underwater demolition frogman, disagreed. “West Palm Beach wasn’t too bad, but I don’t have too much time for doctors anyway.”
Drury, who has survived three heart attacks, also went for tests at the Orlando VA Medical Center. He waited from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. to be dismissed. “Finally, I just left anyway. It was a disaster from the word go. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”
“With more than 150 hospitals and more than 800 clinics,” U.S. Sen Bill Nelson said, “the VA is treating millions of patients a year and the demand on the system has skyrocketed in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In light of the reports, Gov. Rick Scott called on the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. Investigators showed up at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center on April 3 and six more times at other facilities. They were “escorted out... “after being declined the opportunity to review any records at that time,” said AHCA Secretary Liz Dudek. “They were told an official response would be provided from the VA’s national office in Washington D.C... I am disappointed in the federal government’s lack of transparency to this point.”
On Wednesday, the governor planned to sue the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The suit will seek to keep the Department of Veterans Affairs from obstructing state inspectors.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, is an Army captain and a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. He has called for a criminal investigation and supports the VA Management Accountability Act, which he said will help bring a “culture of accountability” by making it easier to fire or demote senior-level employees for poor performance.
The bill was approved by the House on Monday and sent to the Senate.
“We don’t need this VA investigation to become a political football,” said Nelson, a Democrat. “We need answers, and we need solutions. Then, we need accountability.”
The answer, Pigman feels, lies in the carrot, not the stick. “Smart people find a way to meet incentives.”