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VOL. 129 | NO. 127 | Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Veterans Town Hall Mirrors Washington Frustration

By Bill Dries

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Depending on how you look at it, a group of 300 frustrated local veterans last week either got a look at the “corrosive” culture of the Department of Veterans Affairs or a look at change in progress.


U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, opened the floor Friday, June 27, at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library town hall meeting to written comments and questions from the standing-room-only crowd of 300. The first question was about a heated pool at the center, and three veterans in different parts of the crowd snapped and all began shouting their complaints at the same time.

“We want real questions,” one said.

“We’ve got some real problems,” another added.

“I’ve been waiting for 41 years for my disability,” the third veteran said. “We didn’t come down here to talk about no swimming pool.”

When the next written question was about parking, Cohen improvised and took a mixture of comments from the floor as well as the comments and questions on cards.

The town hall meeting demonstrated a high level of frustration with the persistent “customer service” speak offered by the VA officials, from Memphis center director Dr. Diane Knight to deputy undersecretary Jan Murphy.

Murphy drew some murmurs from the crowd when she began by saying the coming review of the Memphis center doesn’t involve as many questions about waiting times as other veterans centers under investigation for possibly manipulating wait-time data.

Several veterans at the Memphis session said their medical records showed visits they had never made or wrong dates, or had no mention of medical problems they had complained about.

Knight usually referred them to assistants wearing red coats and said she could not answer questions about their specific medical issues because of medical privacy laws.

That stoked the frustration as those in the audience said the specific problems were common.

Retired Master Sgt. Dennis Spain went to the medical center with back pain and waited for hours.

“After they took my X-rays, they said, ‘Go home and we’ll call you in four weeks,’” Spain said. “My wife was there and she said, ‘Forget that. We are going to go the emergency room.’ … I waited another two and a half hours. Trust me, not one physician ever laid a hand on my body,” Spain said.

And when Knight began explaining federal rules as she apologized and said it wasn’t a typical experience, Spain interrupted.

“We are frustrated here today. We are on edge,” he shouted in frustration as those in the room applauded. “We have issues and we don’t have time for red tape and bureaucracy. We need somebody to come through and see how they treat veterans.”

The day of the Memphis town hall meeting, White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors described a “corrosive” management culture at the VA and “a lack of responsiveness and an inability to effectively manage or communicate.”

Nabors also said the department has “a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues.”

The White House announced Sunday that President Obama will nominate Robert A. McDonald to lead the VA, following the departure of Eric Shinseki from the position a month ago. McDonald is a former Proctor & Gamble CEO who graduated from West Point, served five years in the U.S. Army and is a life member of the U.S. Army Ranger Association.

When he ended the meeting an hour and a half later, Cohen acknowledged the frustration locally.

“We wanted to hear that. This was an open meeting to get the word to Washington as well as to the VA hospital,” Cohen said. “I think it was a successful meeting. The complaints were heard by the people in charge, and they were heard by me as well.”

Specific and individual problems with red tape are a traditional part of casework for Cohen’s office, those who held the office before him and other members of Congress.

Cohen said the system of veterans care is strained from the influx of veterans from the end of the war in Iraq and the coming end of the war in Afghanistan.

“We’ve had 2 million new entrants into the VA system because of Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “We are going to be paying for Iraq and Afghanistan for generations to come. The Vietnam veterans have aged and have a lot of needs. The money didn’t follow.”

Cohen also dismissed the remedy suggested by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and others to let veterans seek care funded by the government at other hospitals. He argued that the veterans hospitals offer specialized care for the unique medical needs of veterans that aren’t available anywhere else.

“I think that they would like to get rid of all government health care. They don’t believe sometimes in government process,” Cohen said. “If they can’t meet getting appointments in a certain number of days, we’re going to support them being able to go to other hospitals. But we’re not going to try to gut the veterans hospital, which does a lot of good.”

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