The Veterans Administration Scandal Hits Home
For anyone laboring under the assumption that the scandal that plagues the VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona must be anomalous, think again. Without even delving into the medical malpractice testimonials of my three relatives who work at a VA Medical Center on the East coast, the recent near-death experience of my brother confirms our worst fears: the culture of corruption and indifference that afflicts the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is systemic.
The horrifying picture my brother cheerfully sent me one afternoon illustrates the story better than any narrative I can tell. It was a "selfie." An old Army buddy had sent him a pair of sunglasses and my brother suddenly thought he was Joe Cool, happily taking pictures and texting away about his new treasure.
But I wasn't quite as pleased. Behind the sunglasses was a face that bore so little resemblance to my brother I would not have recognized it had I passed him on the street. Tears streamed down my face as I gazed upon the sunken lines and permanent grimace that now marked a face marred by years of excruciating pain.
Worse still, he was unkempt. The shaggy beard, long hair, pallor, and dramatic weight loss were tell-tale signs that my brother had not merely endured chronic pain, but had long ago deteriorated into a bag of bones lacking the subsistence of a proper diet.
This was after they shaved his beard. I still could not recognize my brother
His was literally the face of a dying man. And it was the foreseeable result of shocking malfeasance and misfeasance exhibited by the bureaucrats who allegedly staff the VA hospital in Big Spring, Texas.
Although this soldier could be any one of several million veterans, this one happens to be my half-brother. His name is Richard Jones, and he is the grandson of U.S. Army General Albert Jones, who was among the highest ranking officers on the Bataan Death March in the Pacific theater of World War II. His father was a cadet at West Point when his grandfather became a POW. Given the sacrifices of my brother's family and the connections that come with multiple generations of career military service, he could have wiggled out of service with ease when he came of age during Vietnam. His stepfather also served in WWII (in the OSS no less), but Richard Jones voluntarily enlisted in the Army and went to Vietnam as an infantryman.
Richard two years ago with my son Patrick
When Richard walked into the VA in Big Spring, Texas three years ago, he complained of a sore foot and minor pain in one hip. After three years of never-ending delays, lost files, stunning incompetence, bureaucratic bumbling, self-wrapping red tape, countless broken promises, and blatant cruelty (that would have formed the basis for a meritorious medical malpractice lawsuit in the private sector), this veteran became a completely disabled invalid. He was unable to walk or care for himself and grew concerned he might not wake up some morning. Only the calendar-based happenstance of turning 65 years old saved his life.
My brother had never before resorted to the VA for medical care. We come from tough Scotch-Irish stock and tend to not burden others with or maladies and infirmities, preferring to tough it out instead. This was further reinforced in Richard by the Army, where nothing good ever came of complaining.
Armed with that personality and background, he scrupulously avoided the appearance of being perceived to pester the VA or be seen as an impatient patient trying to jump in line, even when the hip pain spread to both hips and grew so bad he could no longer walk without the aid of crutches. The VA had promised to set up clinic appointments, but no call ever came. When Richard could stand it no more and finally mustered the willingness to call the VA, he was told his files had vanished and he would have to start the evaluation and appointment scheduling process all over again.
Chalking it up to bad luck, he kept his spirits up and went back to the VA. The VA doctor told Richard he was alarmed by the severe condition of his hips and he needed double hip transplants right away. This surgery was to have taken place in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Lots of pre-operation tests and the like were to take place, but everything came to a screeching halt yet again! When Richard called to check on both the status of the pre-surgical testing and his prescriptions, he was dressed down by a bureaucrat for having the temerity to call to check on the status and bothering the lady with an unwelcome telephone call.
This was not the first time Richard had to make do without his medication. On previous occasions, his medication was not ready in time or was not mailed out on time, which of course left him in unbearable pain. By this point, if my brother even turned the wrong way, he passed out from the pain in a heap on the floor. Trips to the bathroom had to be carefully planned and timed so he would not soil himself or the floor, or pass out in close proximity to a toilet or bath tub that might break his fall.
My brother's life had become a living hell. But for the Christian kindness and generosity of neighbors and nearby relatives, he would not have eaten at all. Richard was unable to cook or clean and his living conditions had become inhuman. He was rapidly losing weight and becoming critically anemic.
All the while, every time he called the VA he encountered a new bureaucrat who professed unfamiliarity with his case and he discovered he had to explain years of history to start the process anew each time. When he would finally get back to a doctor, the doctor would be kind and distressed about the matter, order the tests, and the whole hellish process would start again. Over and over Richard would call, set up appointments, even spending money he didn't have to go to Albuquerque for tests but each time it was two steps forward, three steps back.
Finally, my brother became so ill he could not travel to Albuquerque, the only area VA hospital that performed hip transplants. His pleas for approval to have his surgery performed in Lubbock, requiring only one signature, fell on deaf ears. Understandably, Richard became more and more despondent.
Fighting a bureaucracy the size of the VA leviathan is not only physically exhausting, it is soul crushing as well. My brother was literally losing his will to live. That's what I saw in the picture he sent to me -- a man who was defeated.
Until three years ago my brother had never darkened the doorway of a VA facility. Make no mistake, Richard has gotten a preview of what Obamacare will be like -- government red tape and inefficiency on steroids. And this time it isn't about taxes or regulations, it can literally cost you your life.
President Obama believes throwing more money at the VA will solve the problem, but money cannot make people care. In Marvin Olasky's landmark book entitled "The Tragedy of American Compassion," the author spells out what the welfare state does to volunteerism. Olasky postulates that the state is a poor substitute for those benefactors and caregivers who are there for altruistic reasons. Government bureaucrats are often there to get a paycheck and invariably restricted by excessive regulations and nonsensical red tape.
Ultimately, it was the arrival of March 6th (Alamo Day and my brother's 65th birthday) that freed him from the bonds of the VA nightmare. He finally qualified for Medicare and purchased supplemental insurance and we immediately got him to a private doctor who was shocked at his condition.
What the Big Spring, Texas VA couldn't do in three years, a private doctor did in five days. Put another way, the duration of VA indifference was as long as the period Richard's grandfather was held captive in a Japanese POW camp!
Richard had the first of two hip transplants at a Lubbock hospital and is now recovering in a nursing facility. The doctor said the hips were in such bad shape that he was essentially walking on two very badly broken hips for three years. The doctor also said Richard would not have survived through the summer.
But for Richard's rescue by a private doctor, if the VA delays had continued the VA would be making grave space in one of its cemeteries rather than bed space in one if its hospitals.
And no one did a thing about it.
Clearly, given the recent news media reports, this is a systemic, nationwide crisis that has to be answered for by both the Secretary of the Veterans Administration and the President of the United States. I challenge Congress to hold hearings immediately to depose the Inspector General of the VA, the Secretary of the VA,and all of the directors of the various facilities in which deaths have occurred, to include Big Spring, Texas.
My brother did not survive Vietnam to come home and have his own VA try to put him into one of their cemeteries prematurely. Veterans deserve far better than what the VA is serving up. And if this is what we will be getting from the government for health care, God help us all.
A wife, mother of three children, and former aide to Senators Phil Gramm and Pete Wilson, Kay Daly is the grassroots leader who earned the American Conservative Union's prestigious Ronald Reagan Award at CPAC in 2003.