SOUTHERN UTAH – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation as Secretary of the VA Friday, and the preceding release of an Interim Report by the VA Office of the Inspector General scrutinizing health care at the VA Health Care System in Phoenix, has raised issues that some Utah lawmakers and veterans agree are not isolated to Phoenix but have long been systemic issues – as Shinseki himself characterized them. Others find the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System praiseworthy by comparison, with some dissent.
Sen. Orrin Hatch visited the Salt Lake VA Thursday where, he said, he met with both incredible men and women who served our country and selfless people treating them.
“They both deserve the best,” Hatch said, “our veterans deserve the best care and the VA caregivers deserve strong leadership. That leadership is in place at the Salt Lake VA hospital and affiliated facilities, and the decision made today is the best to ensure the VA has strong leadership in Washington, as well.”
LaVerkin resident Darwin DeMille worked as an E-4 in an Army intelligence unit and agreed that the VA hospital in Salt Lake is actually pretty good, he said.
DeMille separated his knee while on a training exercise about 30 years ago. When his knee began bothering him recently, he used the VA hospital in Las Vegas, he said, and it was a horrific experience.
“After waiting forever, both till the date of my appointment then in the waiting room the day of,” DeMille said, “I was in the exam room for two minutes when the doctor walked in, took one look at me from almost across the room, and said: ‘Your knee hurts because you are overweight.’ The doctor then left the room and I never saw him again.”
He was determined to stop using the VA altogether, Demille said, until he was told by another retired serviceman to try the Salt Lake location. He was surprised at how well he was treated there, he said, and has used it since.
St. George resident Marlin Halford was an E-4 Navy Seabee. He disagreed with Hatch and is not satisfied with the VA Salt Lake.
Halford tore his rotator cuff eight years ago when he was in construction work. He then made an appointment with the VA Salt Lake to get an MRI. It took him three months to get the MRI, another three months to get a consultation, he said. At the consultation he was told it would require surgery to fix it, and that the VA would contact him.
“That was eight years ago,” Halford said. “I have yet to hear a whisper.”
St. George resident and retired Marine Col. Patrick Curtis, who served as president of the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program in the 1980s by appointment of President Ronald Reagan, said this kind of problem has been going on for decades. He related a story of his colleague, Sen. Max Cleland, doing a tour of VA Hospitals for 60 Minutes in the ’70s in which one nurse finally said: “I can’t do this anymore, this was all put together in the last two days for your benefit, it doesn’t exist.” Curtis said:
It’s been going on so long the people are so involved they don’t know anymore, all they’re looking to is their bonuses which they get through fudging the numbers, they say: ‘yeah we saw this number of patients,’ they make phony lists. Let’s take the VA hospital in Phoenix, there are 300 doctors, 800 nurses and 3,500 administrative or other positions. The bonuses aren’t going to the doctors and nurses … it’s the administrators that get the bonuses – so they fudge the records.”
Of Shinseki, Curtis said:
I think he was an excellent general but an inefficient head of the VA. He had no gravitas for that job. They should have somebody who knows something about medicine, and certainly he didn’t. He’s a good man and an excellent general and a lousy administrator. He was put in the job for all the wrong political reasons.
Curtis went on to note that the problems have crossed over to all political parties under several administrations. “It’s not indigenous to Democrats or Republicans,” he said.
“The systemic problems … will not be resolved by the resignation of General Shinseki,” Sen. Mike Lee said in an email to St. George News, “and the chore of fixing them ultimately falls on the president. It is time he show the leadership that is so desperately needed to ensure that those who fought and sacrificed to protect this country receive the care and treatment they deserve.”
“Our veterans are heroes that deserve the best possible care,” Rep. Chris Stewart said in an email to St. George News. “Unfortunately, we’ve learned over the last few weeks that not all of them have received that care. While it doesn’t solve the problem, Sec. Shinseki’s resignation was a necessary step in reforming the V.A. As a veteran myself, I understand that someone needs to be held accountable in order to move forward. Veterans care should be our top priority and I hope this is just the first step of many to solve the problems within the V.A.”
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this story.
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