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Reality Check: Veterans Have Lost Faith in A Failing VA System

by Dr. Lynn S. Kahn, published

The newspaper headline caught my eye. For 15 years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) illegally hired physicians and surgeons with revoked licenses and malpractice convictions.

As an organizational psychologist and former political candidate, I often described the need to transform the VA and how veteran suicide reflects national questions about war and peace-building. With Steve Sanson, president of Veterans in Politics, International, I co-wrote an article about vets in prison and the promise of Veteran Court Programs.

So the VA headline got my attention.

Looking for a reality check, l turned once again to Staff Sergeant (Retired) Jason Brooks. Jason’s seven years with the Marine Corps included 5½ years with the Marine Reconnaissance Battalions, part of the special operations community out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and Camp Pendleton, California.

He worked as a martial arts instructor and chemical warfare instructor. After injuries sustained in Iraq in 2003, he took a full medical retirement in 2005.

Jason is rated a 100% disabled veteran, with a 90% rating for battlefield related injuries. He has had four hip surgeries including a double hip replacement; he has cobalt, aluminum and titanium alloy rods in his hips; and he has metal screws and plates in his neck, shoulder, and lower back.

For the past five years, Jason has volunteered as a peer mentor with the Wounded Warrior Project and for three years as a peer mentor in the Veteran Court Treatment Program: 

“Veterans court is awesome. We help vets who get in trouble with the law. It’s an intense 12 to 18 month program that holds veterans accountable while getting them the help they do not always get from the VA such as psychological counseling or alcohol and drug addiction counseling with follow up treatment. 

Wounded Warrior Project peer group meetings are important. Lots of vets don't trust the system. They keep getting screwed and become discouraged about getting help. We work to help veterans overcome their isolation. Project Odyssey, which is a Combat Stress Recovery Program, brings combat vets out of their homes and gives them the tools to leave their Fortress of Solitude and go to movies, or malls or a restaurant. Every few months, we literally take veterans out of their houses and we fly them places to be outdoors and bond with fellow warriors.”

Jason says, “I can’t go through a day without hearing a story.

“The online medical records and online benefit applications are insane. People that answer phones say veterans have to download old forms and upload new information and not all vets can do that and not all vets have computers. Most days you can’t get through on the phone. I spent more than a year updating my records to include my new wife and our baby.” 

For Jason, the VA needs to fix itself:

There is no accountability for waste, fraud and abuse or discouraging VA personnel. Bad employees should be fired – they are hired to care about vets, not belittle them or make fun of them. Vets feel uncomfortable going into VA facilities because of this. We need to empower vets to take charge of their medical care, instead of leaving them feeling like they have no place to go. Vets are abused emotionally, medically, spiritually, and financially.

In early 2016, Jason found out the VA “audited” his benefits account without his knowledge, or help, and said he was overpaid by $10,000 over the course of eight years and stopped his pay. Jason’s response:

I told my VA caregiver about my divorce, so I was informing the VA. They failed to tell me I needed to tell two other departments. I’m not a VA employee and I don’t know their sections didn’t share information. Compensation & Pension, VA caregiver program, vocational rehab, primary care physicians, mental health – they don’t talk or share common knowledge of a veteran. I’m telling the people I have direct contact with what’s going on with me. How am I supposed to know the VA doesn’t talk across their departments? Even when you move from one state to another, you can’t transfer information. You have to re-file to get VA benefits in another state.

The day after Christmas 2016, Jason woke up with excruciating pain in his lower back and knew something was very wrong. His wife and a friend got him to the VA Hospital Emergency Room (ER) where doctors gave him painkillers and said to follow up with Pain Management.

There was no surgical referral – the VA sent Jason away with a prescription for opioids. After a few days of back and forth between Pain Management and the VA ER, his wife took him to the local University Medical Center where he was admitted immediately and had surgery a few days later.

VA insurance is refusing to pay his surgical bill since the surgery was not performed at a VA hospital and Jason is currently appealing that decision.

Has anything changed at the VA in the past year?” Jason reports:

“I feel the only thing that has improved over the past year is the ability for a veteran to go outside of the VA for care. Even within the VA primary care network, things are worse. I moved from one side of town [Las Vegas] to the other and transferred my primary care offices. After waiting six months to see my primary care physician, I had an initial appointment, but then my follow-up was canceled without reason, and without an alternative appointment.” 

Jason is far from the only American veteran or veteran family that struggles with getting quality services at VA facilities. Jason is thankfully part of a widespread conversation about how to fix the VA. 

Culture Change at the VA

I met Steve Sanson and Jason Brooks when I spoke at a Veterans in Politics, International (VIPI) meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada on August 27, 2015, where I presented a plan to transform the VA. I worked on this speech almost daily while driving west for fifteen days and 2,400 miles from the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. to Nevada.

Democracy Chronicles published an edited version of that speech on October 20, 2015, as Transforming Veterans Affairs: A Plan and a Kick in the Pants. The plan adopted all recommendations of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) 2014 Policy Agenda.

The article credits psychiatrist Jonathan Shay with coining the term moral injury for the psychological trauma that results when someone violates his or her own moral code. Shay’s key question is: Where is our morality when we teach our young people how to kill?

Shay believes that recovery is embedded in the homecoming and whether the community understands the “truth of the wartime experience.”

The speech and the plan called for a new VA mission and six strategic goals:

New Mission: To provide world-class services and benefits to our veterans and their families

Strategic Goals

  1. World-Class Health and Mental Health Care
  2. World-Class Delivery of Benefits and Supports
  3. 21st Century Technology and Data Systems
  4. Organizational Excellence
  5. Strong Partnerships
  6. Performance Metrics Focused on Quality of Care

“The kick in the pants” of the article’s title was clear: eliminate all restrictions on the Veterans Choice Program – let vets get health care where they want.

In January 2016, at the Independent Presidential Debate in Lake Charles, Louisiana, I sat on the panel next to Chris Keniston, the presidential nominee of the Veterans Party of America, for over three hours. Chris and I heard obvious policy agreements when the interviewer asked, “How would you help our veterans?”

Our agreements were reinforced in April 2016 when Veterans in Politics, International hosted an independent and third party presidential debate. Subsequent conversations with Chris Keniston and Steve Sanson have added greatly to my framework for transforming the VA, and each helped me better understand the words of the Constitution of the United States.

There is broad agreement in the veterans’ community about how to fix the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The challenge is bringing veterans and politicians into the same conversation. Ultimately, that conversation brings us to the nature of war and peace-building in the 21st century.

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