Mismanagement of patient files, wait times and bureaucratic red tape were among the issues western Montana veterans shared with U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who spent Friday afternoon in Missoula on an issue-related listening tour.
Daines, Montana’s lone Republican representative, stopped in Helena and Missoula on the heels of the growing scandal in the Department of Veterans Affairs and its health care system.
Daines has called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, and this week he co-sponsored the VA Management Accountability Act, which gives agendy leadership the authority to remove top employees for poor system performance.
“We’re seeing these outrageous results come out of the VA,” Daines told the Missoulian before the meeting. “It’s about solving the problem, and solving the problem starts with accountability.”
A dozen veterans were invited to the meeting, each representing various organizations across the region, including Joining Community Forces, the Red Cross, the local vet-to-vet chapter and the University of Montana’s veterans’ outreach office.
Sam Redfern, director of the United States of Hope, credited the VA for saving his life. He said the system’s doctors and nurses are world-class, but said VA management and billing, coupled with bureaucratic hurdles, can be difficult for patients to deal with.
He said the VA seized his last two tax returns without notice, even while a VA hospital bill remains in dispute.
“The world-class VA we have in Montana saved my life,” said Redfern, “However, I was stuck with a $55,000 bill. The VA said it was willing pay half of that. I think every vet has dealt with that paperwork game.”
Daines said he agreed that VA employees do well on the job. Yet he believes the overall bureaucracy and lack of responsiveness has become the system’s Achilles’ heel.
“It’s taking too long to get appointments,” Daines said. “There are solutions to these problems. We’ll review the input from the vets and then talk about what we need to do to improve the system.”
Wait times and an alleged system cover-up have placed the VA in hot water. Recent reports allege that 40 veterans may have died at one VA hospital awaiting care. More than two dozen VA facilities are under investigation for manipulating system data in an attempt to cover up a backlog of patients.
Montana veterans have also complained of wait times, though not to the extent seen elsewhere. Daines spoke of one veteran who had a spot discovered in his lung in January and was told to come back in September.
In recent weeks, several vets in Montana have also alleged a reduction in benefits resulting from a downgrading in their diagnosis. Some told Daines the VA is rushing vets through mental health treatment in an effort to cut costs, including those with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Since I came back from Iraq, I’ve been seeing this (counselor) on a weekly basis,” said one vet. “They said, ‘The VA has cut you back and you only have two more visits. For soldiers with TBI and PTSD, I thought that was a given for as long as they needed it.”
Others who run vet-to-vet counseling sessions said they’ve noticed a similar trend. One Vietnam vet who runs the peer-to-peer groups in Missoula said the VA is scaling down the availability and length of mental health care.
“For nine years we’ve been doing these PTSD support groups, and they’re scaling that down because they don’t want these things apparent and out there,” he said. “You can’t do that in PTSD or TBI. They’re going to have homicides and suicides and everything tends to get dysfunctional down the line.”
Daines said he would take the concerns back to Washington. He said he believes improving the system is possible.
“Funding has doubled in VA over past six years,” Daines said. “We want to ensure they have the resources they need to serve the vets, but we need to look at how those resources are being expended.”