Veterans want VA health care fixed

Richard O’Brien, of Baton Rouge, had a request for legislators Friday on the breakdown of the federal health care system for military veterans: Fix it.

O’Brien, an official with the Military Purple Heart of Louisiana, is diabetic and suffers from blood pressure problems. Long waits for care and a mix-up in the VA pharmacy recently left him unable to get out of bed.

“My health care team is not a health care team. It’s a kill care team. They’re going to kill me,” an angry O’Brien told legislators Friday.

Legislators gathered at the State Capitol on Friday to tackle what is apparently a rampant problem nationwide. Veterans are experiencing long wait times for health care. A whistleblower in Shreveport claimed Overton Brooks VA Medical Center put hundreds of people onto a secret waiting list that was whisked from public view.

Newly appointed state Veterans Affairs Secretary David LaCerte said the fix needs to come from the federal level.

LaCerte said he was disappointed — although not surprised — that federal veterans affairs officials in Louisiana declined to attend Friday’s hearing.

He urged legislators to subpoena federal officials. “For them not to come out and address the people they serve, I think is woefully inadequate,” LaCerte said.

Members of the House Special Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs agreed to work on issuing subpoenas.

“If they’re not going to come voluntarily, then we can do something about that,” state Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, said.

Exactly who will receive the subpoenas and whether they will be complied with remains to be seen. Subpoena power is a murky issue at the State Capitol. Legislators have the authority to issue subpoenas, but they generally don’t lock up people for ignoring them.

The controversy swirling around veterans’ health care started with allegations that workers were doctoring records to hide the long waits for medical attention. The criticism intensified after a whistleblower in Arizona claimed that some veterans died because they couldn’t get medical care quickly enough.

Federal Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki eventually resigned. Congress now is looking at the issue.

In Louisiana, veterans’ health care centers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans have been flagged for further review. Veterans can receive care at three medical centers and 14 clinics across the state.

“Maybe our country’s too quick to create warriors and too slow to care for those warriors once they come home,” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite.

LaCerte said he’s had anecdotal evidence of problems within the veterans’ health care system for years. He said he never had quantifiable evidence.

Veteran Douglas Ducote said he’s tired of health care workers losing paperwork, pushing paperwork to the side and arguing with him. He said workers should be terminated after accumulating a certain number of complaints.

“Down in New Orleans, it is horrible. Baton Rouge isn’t as bad although I had experiences in Baton Rouge,” he said.

O’Brien said he ran out of blood pressure medicine last November and couldn’t get a response on requests for a refill. He said his blood pressure got so high that he was bedridden. Finally, he said, his wife helped him to the car and they drove to a Veterans Affairs’ center, where the pharmacist improperly filled the prescription. O’Brien found himself back in bed on the verge of suffering a stroke.

Because he suffers from diabetes, O’Brien also must have regular eye exams to protect his eyesight. He recently got a letter reminding him to set up an eye exam appointment. He called the number, dialed an extension, reached a person who told him to call another person and followed a maze that resulted in him leaving his name and number. Nine days later, he’s still waiting for a callback on setting up an appointment that probably will be 90 days away.

O’Brien admitted that he is an excitable person, but he said anyone would get excitable about the possibility of losing their eyesight because they can’t see a doctor.

“My wife gave me instructions today to be very quiet with you guys. I put my hearing aids in so I could hear myself because usually I scream at everybody. But the truth of the matter is I’m not going to calm down, and I’m not going to let it be. Because I’m telling you about me but this is what is taking place with every dang veteran in this state,” he said.

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