Kilmer hears Tacoma veterans' VA frustrations

Staff writerJune 4, 2014 

Veterans meet with U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer at the Tacoma VFW Narrows Bridge Post to share their frustrations about dealing with the VA of Puget Sound.

TACOMA NEWS TRIBUNE

Army veteran James Smith of Tacoma has had enough of the form letters he regularly receives from the Department of Veterans Affairs updating him on a claim he submitted four years ago seeking benefits for military injuries.

Each letter reads, ‘Thank you for your patience. We are working on your claim,’ he said. 

But Smith, 59, doesn’t have any faith that it’s actually moving forward. 

“I’ve got a whole drawer full of them,” the veteran of the late Vietnam War era vented Wednesday.

He shared his frustration at a Tacoma VFW forum held on the heels of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation last week amid complaints that VA hospitals across the country have doctored reports on the time patients spend waiting for medical appointments.

Smith and about 20 veterans gathered to air their concerns about the overstressed system with U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, who wanted feedback on proposals to reform the VA. 

They shared a mix of grievances about access to care, quality of care and the VA’s painfully slow process of considering claims for disability compensation.

“We’re trying to seek care that our country promised,” said Chet Dennis, 65, of Tacoma, an Army veteran who spent several years advancing a disability claim related to his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The latest scandal focused on reports from the VA hospital in Phoenix that staffers manipulated official reports on patient wait times to cover up delays in care. The VA Inspector General last week released a report showing that Phoenix veterans often waited 115 days for care despite the hospital’s claim that most patients received appointments within 14 days of a request.

The report called similar schemes “systemic” across the VA.

Kilmer said he wants VA staffers prosecuted if Congress learns that they falsified the reports in order to earn bonuses, a practice that has been alleged in Phoenix.

“The VA needs to change,” Kilmer said. “People are trying to look good rather than do good.”

So far, auditors have not found evidence of false reporting of wait times at the VA hospitals in Lakewood and Seattle, according to May 19 memo written by VA Northwest Director Lawrence Carroll.

However, the local hospitals are subject to the same growth-related pressures causing delays in care across the system. 

The number of patients using VA Puget Sound facilities has nearly doubled since 2000, and the local hospitals are not meeting the VA’s goal of getting 99 percent of veterans medical appointments within two weeks of a request.

About 1,100 VA Puget Sound patients were waiting longer than two weeks for appointments as of March, according to data obtained by The News Tribune.

Lawmakers are taking steps to reform the VA with different approaches advancing through the U.S. Senate. One bill offered by Republican senators would let veterans get care outside of the VA system if they can’t get timely appointments through their normal providers.

Another by Sen. Bernie Saunders, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, would give VA leaders more authority to fire senior officials, allow VA patients to receive care from private doctors and military hospitals, pay for the construction of 27 more VA health facilities and increase funding to hire more VA doctors and nurses.

“They keep putting me off, saying ‘We’re backlogged. We’re backlogged,” said Marine Veteran Steve Pennini, 57, of Federal Way. “They need to hire more people.”

VA benefits are awarded through the Veterans Benefits Administration. It has a backlog of 283,762 claims for compensation that have taken more than six months to process, down from backlog of more than 600,000 one year ago.

The VA’s Veterans Health Administration oversees the system’s medical care. It’s the part of the VA that’s under fire because of the doctored wait-time reports. 

Both systems are straining as veterans of the recent wars enter the system for the first time and older veterans seek care for the complications of aging.

Most of the veterans who spoke with Kilmer Wednesday served around the time of the Vietnam War. One widow faulted a VA doctor for missing signs of her husband’s pancreatic cancer.

Lars Showalter of Gig Harbor died in 2009, two years after he first asked his VA caregiver to test him for cancer. His widow, Judy Showalter, said the Vietnam veteran did not get the test until it was too late.

“We were married for 47 years and I can say I had a love affair for 47 years,” she said. “I was one of the very fortunate ones. I miss him.”

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