Problems at the Phoenix VA: Not Everything is What it Seems

There are plenty of problems with the Veterans Administration and its hospitals, but the problems and potential solutions aren't readily apparent.

A war veteran visits the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.

By Rachel Alexander Published on August 16, 2016

The Veterans Administration has been under fire for inadequate care of veterans in its hospitals. The Phoenix VA hospital in particular has been plagued by complaints.

Veterans may have died due to delays in care. The facility admitted that several suicidal veterans had been allowed to leave the premises when they really needed help, and the practice was not reversed until February of last year.  Three high-level administrators have been fired over the backlog in medical appointments, as well as for manipulating data to cover up delays in care. Former director Sharon Helman was fired and sentenced to probation for failing to disclose thousands of dollars in gifts she had received.

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), a veteran himself, has been fairly vocal about fixing the problems in his home state.

The Problem is Bad

But how bad is the problem? I spoke with an insider off the record. The VA does well at routine healthcare, my source said. Across the country, the VA does well performing general health screens and treating common medical issues like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Most of the complaints about the VA are complaints about how difficult it is to obtain benefits, such as disability. One systemic problem, for example, is the burden placed on veterans to prove that their health problem started while they were in the military and that it is the cause of their disability now. If the vet did not report the health condition when he or she was still in the military, it becomes much more difficult to prove. Additionally, the paperwork is confusing, and if the vet doesn’t phrase the information he gives a certain way, the claim might be overlooked or rejected.

I have personal knowledge of the problem that backs up what my source reports. Matt Parker, a childhood friend, has had a terrible time attempting to obtain full-time disability from the VA. While serving with the Marines in Kuwait a few years ago, he was exposed to depleted uranium. Since then, he and another Marine in his unit have suffered serious physical ailments, including brain tumors. He has twice appealed the decision rejecting his disability request, with no luck.

The VA says the tumor in his head is not related to his military service — despite the fact there are two Marines, both age 36, who served together, who now have massive anomalies in their brains. Both are very young to have brain tumors, and neither one has a family history of brain tumors. They grew up in different parts of the country. And the VA has a treatment center for depleted uranium exposure, so the agency acknowledges that exposure can cause soldiers medical problems — but for some reason refuses to accept that it might have caused Matt problems. 

Matt was even denied disability for fibromyalgia. He also developed epilepsy. He has had difficulty holding a job and at one time was living out of his car.

The VA kept losing his medical information. There was no record of him getting shots for a three-month tour. He was in a bus accident in Kuwait, and went to the doctor for a sprained knee and sore back — that record also was missing. In fact, from looking at his file, it would appear he had never even served in Kuwait!

The VA wanted to examine him for PTSD, which would have made it a lot easier for him to get full disability, but Parker is honest and doesn’t believe he has the condition. He served in a combat zone but didn’t serve in combat.

What’s the Problem?

Is there room for a reform of the VA that would help my friend Matt and other veterans who have been unable to get the care they require? In Phoenix, possibly.

Helman was brought in to clean up the problems at the Phoenix location. She had a reputation for improving VA hospitals. However, my source told me, her approach wasn’t to get to the bottom of the problem, but to make the numbers look better. She would allegedly get upset at staff over vets canceling appointments, but there really are legitimate situations where a vet might be feeling better and no longer need an appointment or couldn’t make one.

What finally really hurt her tenure was when it was discovered that the books were being doctored to make wait times look shorter than they really were. There was apparently a second, secretive waiting list created to speed up some appointments over others..

The first reason for the problem is that the Phoenix VA is underfunded. Budget planning across the entire VA always lags two years behind reality. Arizona is one of the fastest growing states in the nation, so the care facility cannot possibly keep up with the demand. In contrast, the VA in Michigan is lavish because people are moving out of the state.

A second reason is false whistle blowers. One employee who was about to be written up claimed that doctors were blocking their schedules to avoid seeing many patients. According to my source, the employee made up the charge to save his job. Now he is claiming that he is being disciplined is retaliation for the “whistle blowing.”

A third reason also relates to personnel. As in the public education system, it is very hard to fire bad employees due to tenure. Incredibly, one of the ways to deal with them is to promote them.

Finally, the VA’s administrative structure is a problem. Local control at each VA facility works better than central control, due to regional and cultural differences around the country, but it also allows a local administrator to abuse his authority. When this happens, the national agency clamps down and goes back to controlling the local agencies. Currently, the VA is shifted more to central control.

So what should people like Matt do? My source recommends that veterans having problems with their claims should contact a service officer with the Disabled Veterans of America or another major service organization for veterans. They have volunteers who are veterans with Purple Hearts, who have successfully filed claims themselves so understand the process.

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