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"Have you seen the Vanessa Turner story?" asks Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center (NGWRC), when I call to talk to him about the current state of veterans’ benefits.
"She’s the soldier who returned from Iraq and had the leg injury, and she went down to the VA and they told her it would take six months to get around to her."
What? It sounds like a bad joke, with a black eye for a punch line. But no, the plight of Vanessa Turner — which, compared to the star-spangled Jessica Lynch story, was barely a blip on the summer news cycle — is ominously true.
Turner, a young black Army sergeant from Boston, was medically retired from the military when doctors at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center thought she was on her deathbed after collapsing in 130-degree heat in Iraq. When she miraculously recovered and found herself unemployed, homeless, and without any kind of health insurance, she reported to the VA hospital in Boston to seek further care for her unresolved illness and related injuries. The VA informed her that she could be seen on October 12.
"Now this was July 12th," Turner told CNN a month later. "My leg is hurting, it’s swollen, I’m on nerve medication, what do I do?"
What Turner did was appeal to Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) for help, which she received (she had her first medical appointment the day of the CNN interview). What the VA did was trip over itself calling the situation a mistake and an anomaly. Deputy Secretary Leo Mackay assured CNN that all veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have "priority."
But the NGWRC’s Robinson says this is far from the truth. In reality, he says, the VA doesn’t even know who’s coming back from combat — or in what condition are these newly minted veterans.
"For the last two years, we’ve been fighting with the Department of Veterans Affairs to do what’s called Department of Defense/VA data sharing," Robinson explains. "That would include understanding where a soldier is going, [and] what are the daily occurrences of illnesses that are coming out of that location. Each day the military puts out what’s called a disease and non-battle injury report. There’s no reason why the Department of Veterans Affairs is not apprised of that report.
"You know, if a guy’s lost his leg below the knee, he’s going to require some special attention from the VA," he says. "And it might behoove them to get in contact with these people while they’re here at [Walter Reed] and find out where they’re going and get ready for them."
Gary Christopherson, senior advisor to the undersecretary for health at the VA, says the department is actively working with the DoD on a data-sharing project. Right now, he says, the VA already has DoD information on 1.5 million former service members, under a program called the Federal Health Information Exchange. By 2005, the two departments plan to have real-time two-way sharing of information between the two departments’ massive databases.
Unfortunately, as veterans like Turner are soon to find out, there’s often a huge gap in VA services between knowing what a veteran needs and being able (or willing) to provide it. And it’s going to take a lot more than a software upgrade to change that fact.
This summer, VA secretary Anthony Principi said during a San Antonio speech that his department was weathering "the perfect storm" of too many veterans enrolling in the VA and not enough money from Congress to take care of them all.
"I think most health-care systems in America would collapse under the burden," he told his audience.
While the VA has not yet collapsed, it is certainly showing signs of strain. Funding is a primary factor. In many ways, though, money is merely the physical manifestation of a deeper fault line within the system: The federal government — VA officials included — have engaged in a history of actions and inactions since at least World War 1 that are distinctly anti-veteran.
This dynamic has played itself out in different ways in the two major arenas of the VA: the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and the Compensation and Pension Benefits program. Problems in the former are relatively new, and, some say, getting worse; problems in the former go back decades, and, some hope, are getting better. But most experts aren’t optimistic regarding veterans’ chances for better care and compensation.
The VHA is where Congress always gets to play the bad guy, historically under-funding the system’s budget and insisting that it remain discretionary, unlike the fixed budget that Comp and Pen enjoys.
"Which is ‘good luck,’ every year, to try to get what you need to serve the veterans," says Ronald Brodeur, a disabled Air Force veteran who serves as a volunteer adjutant for the Disabled Veterans of America at their Togus VA Medical Center office in Augusta.
The VA’s financial woes were compounded in 1996, when Congress mandated that all veterans be allowed to enroll in the VA health-care system, without fully funding the expansion.
"We [the DAV and other veterans organizations] went out on a big recruitment to find those people who may not have been service-connected," says Brodeur, "but they did spend some time in the military and now they may have some health problems, or they lost their job and they’re having a hard time just getting prescriptions.
"And we really went crazy doing that, and we found a lot of people who needed assistance," he says. "And we started flooding the system with them, and we choked it."
So bad did they choke the system, in fact, that incoming veterans now routinely wait six months to a year for their initial VA medical appointments. Meetings with specialists often take just as long.
To mitigate this backlog, Secretary Principi was forced to make a politically unpopular move in January, and suspend new enrollments by veterans above a certain income level with health issues lacking a direct service connection.
Now, on the heels of President Bush’s $87-billion Iraq request, the Senate is preparing to vote on a $26.8-billion VHA budget, which is less than what veterans’ groups requested, but more than Bush or the House of Representatives was willing to give. And, points out a spokesperson from Senator Snowe’s office, that number could still be negotiated upward on the Senate floor — which is something the senator would support.
Snowe "sees [the $26.8-billion appropriation] as a step in the right direction," says spokesperson Elizabeth Wenk, "and only the beginning of the process. But I think [she] agrees with the veterans’ groups that we can go further."
Portland resident Rodney Mears would agree as well that the VA needs more funding, though he’ll also tell you first-hand about that infamous anti-veteran sentiment rumbling below the agency’s surface.
Mears recently had to buy his stepfather a $1000+ hearing aid out of his own pocket because neither he, a 1970s-era Navy veteran, nor his 72-year-old stepfather, a World War 2 veteran, could figure out how to complete the reams of documentation required by the Department of Veterans Affairs before they would pick up the tab.
Mears says his stepfather’s hearing loss is a result of standing next to "the big guns" during his military service, but the paperwork the elder man was confronted with at Togus was so daunting that he gave up on the health care to which he was entitled.
"To go back and ask the day, the time, the type of gun, the commanding officer — I mean, these are things that are 40, 50 years old," Mears says, "and it’s almost impossible, unless you kept a diary, to be able to convey in any kind of manner that can make sense on paper, like they’re trying to produce."
What angers Mears, though, is not that he had to open his wallet for his stepfather — it’s that the government managed to keep its own purse strings tightly shut.
"These people were called upon in that war," he says. "When the Japanese attacked our country, they volunteered, there were lines in the streets. And my stepfather did the same thing.
"Now he goes up to Augusta and stands in a line that’s four hours long. There’s more red tape than the worst crime scene in the world — and he felt like a criminal, like you’re begging, begging, for some kind of benefits, when it should be totally the opposite. It should be ‘How can I help you?’ "
But Mears is well aware that the state of veterans’ benefits is only likely to get worse as time goes by.
"Let me tell you something," he says, "I’m going to do everything in my power, while I’m young now, to put money away. Because I have absolutely no faith in any kind of ability to receive benefits from the government when I’m older."
What Mears and his stepfather experienced is far from unique. Veterans must jump through similar hoops to get treatment for practically every condition that doesn’t have an obvious service connection (like a gunshot wound, versus prostate cancer), and to get disability compensation for those conditions under the Comp and Pen program.
"There is a burden of proof that has been improperly placed on the veteran, when it should be placed on the Department of Defense," the NGWRC’s Robinson says. "It’s the department’s job to hand the VA everything that the soldier would need to file a claim."
On an increasingly complex battlefield, Robinson says there’s no way for a service member to know or keep track of all the exacting details that will later be necessary to file a successful claim. And they shouldn’t have to worry about these things.
"The Department of Defense has a responsibility," Robinson says. "When a soldier goes to war, they need to know what shots the soldier received, how many times the soldier got ill, whether or not there was an environmental or endemic disease that may have impacted on his health, what the air quality was, what the soil quality was.
"Soldiers don’t have time to take wind speed and direction calculations and fight a war," he adds. "They don’t have time to be epidemiologists while they’re squeezing off M-16 rounds. The Department of Defense must get more proactive in preparing a seamless medical record that is ready to go and immediately answers any and all questions that the soldier might have to answer from the Department of Veterans Affairs. There should not be this disconnect, and there is."
Robinson, a Gulf-War era Army Special Forces veteran, is uniquely qualified to comment on the military’s role in helping veterans help themselves. His last assignment before leaving the Army was at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, working on the Gulf War Illness research project. It was his dissatisfaction with certain aspects of this project that motivated Robinson to join the NGWRC when he left the military.
"I did not feel proud about the results of our investigation, and I was not alone in that sentiment," he said in a press release announcing his new job at the NGWRC. "It seemed that everything we produced leaned away from helping the veteran."
It’s here where we begin to enter some truly confusing territory, a land of role-reversals where Congress consistently pushes for better treatment of veterans and the VA tries to thwart those moves at every turn.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: September 12 - 18, 2003
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