My experiences with the VA benefits and health systems stand in stark contrast with those horror stories we often read about in the papers or see on the television exposés. It started by accident. After years of haranguing by family and friends, I agreed to finally apply for VA disability benefits. I looked at the application form and hit a brick wall. I would have to describe my disabilities and limitations in detail and how my military service contributed to those disabilities and limitations. Well, Hell! I’ve never considered myself disabled and certainly did not feel limited in any way. I am nigh indestructible and have the 23 healed broken bones to prove it. However, I promised SWMBO I would apply.
I went to the Alexandria Vet Center for advice and, by chance, met a Veterans Service Representative (VSR) from the Virginia Department of Veterans Services. He invited me to stop by his office at the Virginia Department of Veterans Services in Springfield. He spent the time necessary to figure out my case and fill out the necessary forms. He knew all the intricacies of the process and enabled a partial judgement to be made in a month. I received two more partial judgements before my final judgement of 70% service connected disability. Throughout this process, the Virginia Department of Veterans Services kept me informed of the status and progress of my claim. The lesson I took from this process is that none of this would have happened without the expert assistance of the VSR. For this assistance, all I had to do was endure a few enlisted-officer jokes from a former Navy chief.
The entire process took a year. I had two medical examinations at a contract facility in Alexandria and two appointments at the VA Medical Center in DC. I was astonished by the crowds of broken and sick veterans at the Medical Center in DC. Most were from the Viet Nam era. There were even some old timers from Korea hanging in there, but I saw plenty of young people from our most recent wars as well. At both facilities, even the obviously overburdened VA Medical Center in DC, the care was professional and noticeably respectful.
On my final benefits judgement, I was asked if I would like to see a doctor at this time. Since I haven’t had a physical exam in over twenty years, I figured why not. I choose the Fredericksburg community based outpatient clinic (CBOC). It was only twenty minutes away over back roads. I got an appointment in a little over a month. This is a small clinic located within sight of the local hospital in Fredericksburg. I received my VA ID card and started getting the normal battery of tests and measurements associated with an annual physical. I was assigned to a team consisting of a doctor, nurse, physicians assistant and several clinicians. The nurse and doctor interviewed me for well over an hour about my current health, medical history and lifestyle. It was obvious by the line of questions that they were as much concerned about my mental health as my physical health. As Paul Justion noted in his comment to Colonel Lang, this VA medical team was treating me as a whole person.
After this visit, I considered my self to be extraordinarily well adjusted and fit as a fiddle. I was surprised when my new doctor called me a few days later to tell me one of my blood tests indicated, much to his and my surprise, that I was big time diabetic. This was a Friday afternoon. He set up a appointment to see me the following Tuesday. This began a program of testing, monitoring and education to right the ship. The education part of this program was excellent. I attended a series of sessions with a dozen or so fellow veterans at the clinic with medical, pharmacology, behavioral and dietary experts from staffs from the Fredericksburg clinic and the Richmond VA medical center. Again as Paul’s comment noted, the camaraderie among the patients and staff was clearly visible and IMO contributed greatly to the treatment program. BTW, I’m fine now with minimal medications. I just have to cut way down on the Cinnabons.
With this experience both my doctor and I realized that I may not be nigh indestructible. He arranged for several tests and procedures to more fully monitor my health. Some of these tests are related to diabetes. For Viet Nam veterans, the VA assumes exposure to Agent Orange as a contributory factor for diabetes. For me this is not service connected, but I still received treatment without any co-pays. I received those tests and procedures not related to diabetes also without co-pays. I am authorized treatment for any condition, not just service connected conditions. I have since learned that veterans with a 50% or higher disability rating are authorized treatment for any condition within the VA health system without co-pays. Only dental treatment is limited to service connected conditions.
Over the last year, I’ve made a number of trips to the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond. It’s a long trip, but my youngest son lives in Richmond so I make a day and evening out of each trip. Just going to Buzz and Ned’s Barbecue makes the trip worthwhile. Going to Richmond also saves me from driving north on I-95 into DC. That trip is a guaranteed nightmare. For every appointment at Richmond, I was seen on time or early. Check in consists of scanning my VA ID card at a kiosk and answering a few questions on the touch screen. It’s a less than a minute process. My records are all digitized and available to every specialist that has seen me. Apparently this includes my active duty medical records. The Richmond VAMC is large and crowded. It has a nice cafeteria and a canteen (a small military store). On two occasions I’ve seen jazz bands playing in the cafeteria. Again, the camaraderie is palpable. Viet Nam vet, Airborne and other unit and service caps are everywhere. I’ll never wear one, but I carry my 10th Group coin just in case.
On the same campus is a 250 plus bed veterans care facility (nursing home) operated by the Virginia Department of Veterans Services. I seriously doubt Virginia is the only state that provides like services like our VSR assistance, nursing homes and cemeteries. This state augmentation of federal VA benefits and services should be regarded as an important part of the entire system.
I am concerned about the talk of privatizing the VA healthcare system. That solution would obliterate the camaraderie of the present system, a camaraderie that I think is therapeutic to many veterans. I am fortunate that I have ready access to VA facilities. This isn’t the case throughout the country. Augmenting the current system with the use of private medical care and the establishment of more community based clinics is required and desired, but it will be expensive. Privatizing the system would also be expensive, perhaps even more expensive. The alternative is to further restrict services.