Vetting Tucson’s VA

By JUSTINA ZIEGLER

Our Veterans Affairs healthcare system is failing those who endure the most.

There is no one in our nation who sacrifices more than one who serves in the United States military – whether active duty, retired or reserve. These men and women of honor have dedicated their lives to our nation’s safety in numerous ways.

There are those that have given their lives and died in combat, and those who, once home, continue to sacrifice themselves mentally, physically and emotionally.

Many struggle with chronic nightmares, haunted by memories only a fellow soldier could imagine. But they have enlisted so that U.S. citizens can have the freedom to pursue their dreams.

According to the website LiveScience, there are seven common health conditions for returning veterans:

Musculoskeletal injuries/pain. The Veteran’s Administration reports that 48 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported chronic pain.

Mental health issues. The Archives of General Psychiatry found that 1 in 10 Iraq war veterans develop mental struggles including depression, anxiety, substance abuse and PTSD. The United States of Veteran’s Affairs released a study that stated in 2014 roughly 20 veterans were committing suicide each day. From 2001-2014, veteran suicides increased 32 percent.

Chemical exposure. It is common in combat and can cause lifelong ailments. As an example, sarin was used in the Gulf War. It not only kills in combat, but it might cause long-term heart damage and abnormalities, according to the American Heart Association.

Infectious diseases. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, many veterans are exposed to infections that have no vaccine available, some of which – if not fatal – could affect them for years.

Noise and vibration exposure. Hearing loss and ringing in the ears (tinnitus) are common and permanent effects of loud war noises such as gunfire and large aircraft. Vibration from working with machinery can cause nerve damage that results in chronic pain and numbness in the hands and back.

Traumatic Brain Injury. According to the National Academy of Sciences, TBI is caused by a blow to the head which disrupts brain function, sometimes permanently. It has been called the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Urologic injuries. Injuries to the kidneys, bladder, ureters and genitalia during battle need complex surgery that has to be delayed. This often causes complications, according to urologist Dr. Arthur Smith.

All of our military personnel are entitled to have the best health care that exists in our nation, paid for by their honor, blood, sweat and tears. Health care that is as honorable and dedicated to them as they are to the United States, and just as reliable and selfless.

So, why do so many of our local veterans mistrust or avoid Tucson’s VA hospital?

On Nov. 8, 2016, the Office of the Inspector General released a summary of an investigation it conducted on Tucson’s VA hospital because of a former employee’s complaint. The complaint was that the VA was “gaming” the system’s scheduling by falsifying dates and treating veterans within a 14-day window even if they needed care beyond that timeframe.

The employee was concerned that patient health care was being delayed and causing harm to patients. Evidence gathered by the OIG validated this claim. The OIG had received two similar anonymous employee complaints about Tucson’s VA hospital in May and July 2014.

These same problems were documented in March 2010 by Veterans Integrated Service Network during an unannounced site visit fueled by a complaint from this latest employee while still employed.

This 2010 report, included in the OIG investigation on the Tucson VA hospital, concluded that:

• Cardiology staff members routinely canceled pre-surgery consults and were not using proper assessment equipment.

• Dermatologists routinely responded to consults and prescribed medications based on descriptions without ever seeing the patient.

• Women’s Clinic staff members told consulting staff that Pap smear consults were not needed, and that only a request itself by phone was sufficient. Patients were lost to follow-up because of the canceled consults.

• Administrative clerks, on a routine basis and without clinical oversight, would cancel consults for patients if the patients had been seen by the consulting service within the last 24 months.

• There was evidence of consults being canceled and then rescheduled after the 30-day mark had been reached in order to prevent the consults from showing up as not completed within the 30-day goal.

• There was evidence of administrative clerks determining desired dates for next appointments rather than patients and providers making that determination.

• Palliative Care consults were being placed, and the consulting service was documenting that the consult was not a real consult, but instead one that was written to meet a performance measure.

All off these problems should have been taken care of in 2010, when VISN first reported it. They should have been again in 2014 when OIG received similar complaints — along with November 2016 with the conclusion of the OIG investigation.

Dylan Armenta, Marine corporal, veteran and Pima Community College student, said he went to the VA hospital in mid-October last year. The VA investigation was concluding at that time and the VA staff should have been doing the very best they could. He said he was certain he had broken his foot.

“I’ve broken bones before,” Armenta said. “I knew it was broken.”

He said they took X-rays and insisted his foot was merely sprained. The VA sent Armenta on his way, to his third-floor apartment with his service dog Luna. He was given a prescription for Ibuprofen and a temporary boot meant for sprains, according to his paperwork. He said he had to obtain crutches on his own.

“It’s bullshit,” Armenta said. “They wouldn’t fix it.”

Armenta said the VA called him several days later and told him he needed to come back in because there was a break in his foot they now saw on his X-ray.

“It took the VA about three weeks of calling, telling me I had another new break every so often, until the last time they called and said my foot was actually broken in four places,” Armenta said. “Other vets have been through worse with them; I hope they got taken care of.”

Armenta said he never went back to the VA to get his foot “fixed,” because he did not trust them after that experience.

David Correnti, a Vietnam War veteran, has never gone to the VA but has heard stories from other fellow veterans who have.

“The things I’ve heard from other vets through the years, in the ’70s it wasn’t as bad as today,” Correnti said. “They talk to you a few minutes, send you out the door and make their money. The doctors over there need to be watched over, because apparently they aren’t doing their jobs properly. They need to be regulated. Their work is not equal to the money they’re getting paid.”

As a community, it is time we fight for our veterans to have the best healthcare possible. It’s been a recurring problem far too long. We need to hold accountable the doctors entrusted with their well-being and ensure our veterans are being treated with the services they are entitled to.

PHOTO BY JUSTINA ZIEGLER

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