We’ve all read today that retired four-star General Eric Shinseki just resigned as head of the Veterans Administration. As reported by the New York Times:
In a speech Friday morning to a veterans group, Mr. Shinseki apologized and described the V.A. he led as having “a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity.” He vowed to fix what he called a “breach of integrity” and said he had already initiated the firing of top managers at the Phoenix medical center, where allegations of mismanagement first surfaced.
But his contrition and promises of action came too late to save his job.
It is too soon to gauge the extent to which Mr. Shinseki can really bear responsibility for those decades-long failures of the VA to professionally care for our nation’s military veterans. Budget cuts and unethical medical practices both do a great disservice to both our veterans, and to the thousands of highly competent, dedicated doctors and medical assistants who struggle to provide care in a dysfunctional and understaffed system.
In my opinion, and the opinion of many, Shinseki’s most visible failure was in not acknowledging and addressing these deficiencies more visibly and proactively. But with his departure, we now face the prospect that our do-nothing Congress can now say the problem has been fixed, and move on to what it does best.
My own personal VA story is trivial by comparison, but I see it as a tiny snapshot of a small part of a much bigger picture. I’m a Vietnam veteran (1963-1964), but VA ineptitude caused my application to be denied in 2009, 2010 and 2013. I’m still waiting. My honorable discharge documentation is in order. For the military time period in which my documentation was issued, it’s accurate to say it has always been in order. The VA told me they “believed” me, but they could find no evidence that I was in fact a Vietnam veteran …
I’d always had private health insurance during my working career. My COBRA benefits expired six months after retirement, so, in 2009, I went down with a friend to his Oakland VA facility to sign up. I brought my honorable discharge and form DD-214, the all-important record of military service. I filled out the application and waited, and waited …
I was denied, by mail from Washington D.C., on the basis of prior year income (the last year I’d still been employed). This was baffling, since there is no income cutoff for Vietnam Vets, and I was by then only living on Social Security. I waited until the following year, and applied again. None of my Vietnam Vet friends have been means-tested.
“Means testing” is reserved for veterans who did NOT serve in an official combat zone. This seems to bely the promise made on my 1961 enlistment, and again during separation processing in 1964, that we were all eligible for VA hospital benefits.
Eventually, I received another letter. It again informed me I’d failed the “means-test,” and was therefore ineligible for VA benefits “at this time.” I wrote the Oakland VA at the address where it is to this very day still located. The Post Office returned my letter “Addressee Unknown.”
I next telephoned the VA, who said, “Oh, you don’t want them anyway; you want Washington, and here’s the address …” I read the address back to him, wrote Washington, D.C., and never, ever received a reply.
In 2013 I decided it was high time to give it another try. On August 20th, I drove down to the now-infamous Phoenix VA facility on Indian School Road. It is a huge facility, by hospital standards, with a vast, airport-sized parking lot. The lot was completely full. It took over half an hour to find a space another car was backing out of.
I pulled a number out of the ticket machine, sat down in the waiting room, and filled out all the forms again. There were perhaps a hundred people in the waiting room. Most were around my age, some with families in tow. A few were much younger, perhaps from the Afghan or Iraq wars. After about an hour, my number was called. I was escorted into a small interview office.
A well-spoken, brusquely professional young woman heard my case. A phrase from the “Doc Martin” BBC-TV show came to mind. She was “aggressively unhelpful.” Far from welcoming me to the VA, her demeanor made it clear we were in an adversarial situation. I remained courteous.
First, she took my application and did some number-crunching. She declared the means-test said I wasn’t eligible for VA benefits “at this time.” My annual income consists mainly of Social Security benefits. I protested.
She pushed my DD-214 over at me and she said, “show me where on this form you see the word ‘Vietnam’.”
I was flabbergasted. The government form clearly shows my duty station at APO 143, 39th Signal Battalion, from 1963 to 1964. But she was adamant: the form had to contain the word “Vietnam.”
I said, “So this is why the Oakland VA denied me in 2009 and Washington denied me in 2010!”
She said, “You need to get the Army Board to correct your DD-214, and then you can bring that back to us.” She gave me the address to write.
I wrote the Army Board within the week. APO 143 is the postal code for Saigon or Tan Son Nhut, Vietnam. The 39th Signal Battalion had a massive presence in Vietnam during the whole Vietnam Era. Indian School Road is a government facility that obviously has the means of figuring that out. Please, I wrote, correct the form however you have to so that the Indian School Road VA can figure out that it says “Vietnam.”
In April 2014 I received a reply from the Army Board. They were working on my request. The writer had some questions about which Vietnam service medals I wanted to appear on the DD-214. I replied again, and he e-mailed back that he would now begin having my DD-214 corrected. I’m still waiting for the revised form to arrive in the mail. I’m promised the word “Vietnam” will appear on it.
Comparing notes with other veteran friends who also served in Vietnam, I find that those of us who served later, say in 1968-1971, had the word “Vietnam” on their DD-214’s. But a friend who served with me at the same time and place in Vietnam reports that he never had this problem with his VA folks in Florida.
I’m now getting health care from a major private HMO. I didn’t think it smart to put all my eggs in the Medicare basket any longer, or try to wait out the VA machine. And I’d already heard anecdotally that an earlier government audit of VA facilities had ranked it as second-worst in the nation.
Recent national news about Indian School Road reinforces my August 2013 impression that my “aggressively unhelpful” interviewer was acting on a scripted agenda. I can’t prove that, but I have little doubt they were instructed to deny eligible new applicants whenever they found any grounds for putting them off. We now know they couldn’t handle the enrollees they already had.
I also have to ask myself: in light of recent national news, why would I want to entrust my health care with the most notorious VA facility in the United States?
Over the decades, Congress has showed no more interest in spending money to shore up the VA system than other health care systems. Senator Bernie Sanders’ bill to rescue the veterans’ system, introduced just before the most serious current charges broke, are widely regarded as a non-flyer.
I’m neither angry nor surprised. In the 1960’s and 1970’s they lied to us all about Vietnam. Why would we expect they’d keep their promises to our veterans?
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