NEW YORK (MainStreet) — John Chasen drives 60 miles to a Veterans Affairs medical facility in Rome, Ga. from his residence in Chatsworth every three months to get blood work. Although there are doctors at the Rome clinic, Chasen is also driving to a Nashville, Tenn. VA facility to see a physician's assistant who issues prescriptions.
"I haven't seen a doctor in five years," Chasen told MainStreet. "All I see is nurse practitioners. I don't understand how a nurse would know more than a doctor. That doesn't make sense."
The 70-year-old Vietnam veteran is reimbursed $60 to $70 for travel expenses but says age will eventually prevent him from driving long distances.
"I am on Medicare and have Medicare supplement so outside doctors don't cost me a dime, but the VA doesn't honor prescriptions from outside doctors," said the Air Force veteran.
Chasen is among the thousands of veterans who remain challenged by red tape at VA hospitals across the country in light of CNN's ground breaking investigation that revealed veterans are dying as a result of delayed medical care and secret lists. In May, President Obama announced that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shineski would resign, which has calmed the political storm but has not yet caused change for all veterans like Chasen or my father, James Fairley.
"The former VA head had the best intentions, but the bureaucratic problem of underperformance was too much for him to change alone," said Dr. Michael Murphy, former VA physician and co-founder of ScribeAmerica in Aventura, Fla. "The VA is in need of serious restructuring by starting over or privatizing the existing VA Hospitals to be run by a nationally recognized systems."
A claim with the VA Office of Inspector General about my father's 30-pound weight loss, nagging cough and distended stomach was referred back to the patient advocacy office at the VA Audie Murphy Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, which has done nothing to assist.
"The Inspector General's role is limited in scope and that's why you have Congressmen, such as Senator Blumenthal in Connecticut, discussing an FBI investigation, which would carry criminal consequences," said Art Terrazas, director of government affairs at the American Counseling Association (ACA) in Washington, D.C.
Shineski's replacement nominee Bob McDonald vowed that he would take quick action to change the health care system to better serve the nation's 22 million veterans. Just this month, the former Proctor & Gamble CEO won unanimous backing from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. But whether that change will happen fast enough to save the lives of veterans who are waiting to see a doctor remains to be seen.
"I feel very positive about Bob McDonald coming into the VA system, but unless the actual root of the problem at the VA Hospital is addressed, Bob will essentially be working with one hand tied behind his back," said Murphy, who, as an emergency room doctor within the VA Hospital system, reports that support staff around him took turns indulging in 90 minute breaks. The problem facing McDonald is bigger than just hiring additional physicians.
"Existing physicians are generally only seeing two patients per hour while their community counterpart is seeing four patients per hour," Murphy told MainStreet. "VA physicians cannot see more patients because of the culture of underperformance."
And that culture of underperformance could result in charges if an FBI investigation determines that delayed medical care is a criminal act.
"What we need to see more of is VA Hospital staff facing consequences, which requires all Americans to be vigilant in regards to what is being done to reform the VA in a true, lasting way," Terrazas told MainStreet.
Meanwhile veterans like my father and Chasen are sitting ducks.
"We think it's deplorable and completely unacceptable that veterans have been waiting for care for so long," said Terrazas.
In addition to underperformance, lack of accountability plays a role.
"The general public has a perception that the VA is a paramilitary operation with a military like hierarchy but that's not how the VA works," Terrazas said. "There was a time when the VA needed to give local folks leeway in hiring but the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and there now needs to be more oversight."
Terrazas advises veterans who are still waiting for care to contact a caseworker in their local Congressman's office.
--Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet