At the VA, it's the coronavirus versus virtual reality
In his State of the V.A. speech (February 5, 2020), V.A. secretary Robert Wilkie announced that veterans will see further improvements in V.A. services. Mr. Wilkie spoke enthusiastically about modern technology, including 5G resolution that a V.A. hospital in Palo Alto will soon boast, and virtual reality therapy "to help veterans with PTSD and pain management."
Then coronavirus broke loose. Workers of V.A. facilities countrywide had to wear sweat-drenched, "one per week" masks, as the Veteran Health Administration implemented "crisis capacity strategies for mask and N95 respirator conservation." Staffing shortages that employees had been complaining about for years imposed "recycling" of COVID-19-positive doctors and nurses. Workers who should be protected due to their own underlying health problems were also forced back on forefront or penalized with unpaid AWOL status.
Traumatized staff faced helpless working conditions that were eerily reminiscent of precarious medical support on a battlefield. With little or no backup, slaloming among deficiencies, errors, and contradictory orders, there was no way to dodge deadly chaos; our veterans' lives were swept away as in a merciless avalanche. It's a far and desperate cry from "state-of-the-art care" that VHA crows about in a form entitled "Rights and Responsibilities of VA Patients and Residents of Community Living Centers."
An independent investigation conducted for the governor of Massachusetts (June 23, 2020, titled "The COVID-19 Outbreak at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke") brought to light substantial errors such as "opposite of infection control" overcrowding and mixing asymptomatic population with patients "actively dying" from the coronavirus. Poignant testimonies exposed conditions offensive to the dignity of our veterans and an intolerable suffering of both the patients and staff members: "One nurse described the move as total pandemonium. A recreational therapist who was instructed to help with the move said that she felt like she was walking [the veterans] to their death, and that the veterans were terrified. A social worker felt it was like moving the concentration camp — we [were] moving these unknowing veterans off to die."
If the battlefield-like experience brought the V.A.'s compassionate "lowly" staff even closer to our veterans, the existence of an abyss between the V.A.'s upper crust and "the commoners" become just more notably evident. Even in a coronavirus-free environment, homeless veterans would wince at the V.A.'s new V.R. (virtual reality) craze, but according to the V.A. secretary, virtual reality will help our veterans "to process the emotions related to a traumatic experience in the field."
How do you "process" sleeping rough in a dangerous place? Rejoicing that the V.A. Palo Alto hospital is about to become "one of the first 5G enabled health facilities in the world" is at present simply indecent; in some state veterans' homes, there were no curtains to respect an agonizing death.
The pampered Palo Alto facility must have been the apple of the eye of the previous V.A. secretary, too. As documented by Senator Mark Kirk in his oversight letter to V.A. secretary Robert McDonald (Jul. 26, 2016), in Palo Alto, the V.A. blew "$483,000 on a giant rock sculpture and $807,000 for site preparation for the giant rock, $365,000 for a sculpture at the aquatic center entrance, $305,000 for a sculpture in an exterior lobby, $330,000 for a half arc inside the mental health center, and $285,000 for art on the side of a parking garage[.]"
It looks as if anyone (even President Trump) who compliments the V.A. will learn the hard way that there's no trusting the V.A. without fact-checking.
In remarks at the announcement of the PREVENTS Task Force Roadmap (June 17, 2020), the president congratulated the V.A. on "unprecedented" ninety percent approval rating: "That's a number that has never — not even come close to attaining that number, so it's a tremendous job you're doing."
Sorry, Mr. President: déjà vu.
In his remarks (United Veterans Committee of Colorado, April 10, 2016), unfazed by the waiting list scandal, then–V.A. secretary McDonald announced that about 90 percent of veterans are either "completely satisfied" or "satisfied" with getting an appointment when they wanted. If "more of the same" is self-explanatory, it's difficult not to comment on V.A. secretary Wilkie's message to veterans: "Come see us. File the claims. Come speak to us. This is not your grandfather's V.A., where the paperwork is going to take ten years."
Tragically, this is still our grandfathers' V.A. Some have been homeless since the Vietnam era. Some have been fighting for Agent Orange claims approval for 40 years. Some have recently and prematurely died on the disgraceful coronavirus battlefield.