Concerns about the care veterans receive at VA medical centers have outraged the nation. What do local veterans have to say about the care they have received at the Dayton VA Medical Center? And, how does the CEO of the facility respond to the allegations. The I-Team investigates "Left Behind: Scandal at the VA."
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Marilyn Barrett served more than two decades in the Air Force before becoming a VA patient. Barrett’s perspective on veteran health is also marked by her brief time as a VA employee.
Barrett said her experience as a patient and employee convinced her the VA needs more authority to fire under-performing employees.
“Until managers and supervisors at every level are given the authority to handle problematic employees, nothing is going to get done.”
A 91-year-old WWII veteran from Hamilton, Howard Cohen was drafted into the service at the age of 19. Today, he enjoys using the VA’s community clinic in Middletown for blood work, eye care and regular checkups.
Still, he said he’s heard his fair share of horror stories about VA hospitals during his 70 years as a veteran. He says management is a big factor in improving the VA system.
“The main thing is management,” Cohen said. “You get out of something what you put in.”
A VA patient since 1999 and a former VA cemetery employee, David Fogle is a decorated Marine Corps veteran who earned a Navy Commendation with a Combat V during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive.
Today, Fogle reflects on a staph infection received during a teeth cleaning at the Dayton VA. This routine but problematic procedure, he said, resulted in three months without mobility and the replacement of his artificial knee at Miami Valley Hospital.
Too, he said his experience with painkillers at the VA Medical Center is unreasoned.
“There’s no reasoning of what they do,” Fogle said. “It’s just, give you a handful of pills and send you on your way.”
For Army veteran Leroy Folden, the answer to his problems at the Dayton VA was to transfer to the medical center in Cincinnati. The Springfield resident says the team in Cincinnati helped fix what he says was a poorly run kidney procedure.
“Cincinnati really did an excellent, excellent job,” he said. “I can’t blame the whole VA hospital for what one doctor did.”
Folden, 68, says he got out of the Army in 1979 and has otherwise received good care.
“It’s a cracker barrel sometimes,” he said, adding, “The VA, with me, I’ve had pretty good luck with them.”
Timothy Hammond’s experience with military healthcare began on an Army base the day he was born in 1957. At age 18, he joined the Army and served six years before taking a civilian job at the VA center in Chillicothe.
Today, he’s a Dayton VA Medical Center patient who said his decision to seek a colonoscopy from a specialist outside the VA sped up the discovery of precancerous polyps, which he fears could have worsened if he waited on the VA.
His ideas for improving the Dayton VA include hiring more doctors and improving veteran-focused care.
“All I’m trying to do is get the assistance and support that are related to my service,” he said, “and other than that, I’d like to go fishing and buy a house if that’s what I want.”
Tom Hardy, a physician, spent more than two decades in the Army and 10 years in the private sector before becoming chief of staff at the Dayton VA Medical Center. He’s focused on improving the care of veterans.
“In the Army we had a system in which a physician and two or three (physician assistants) worked together to take care of a large Army unit, and the system worked very, very well,” he said. “And I think we can bring that to the VA, really improve access to the veterans and improve their care.”
But, Hardy also said government employees who aren’t doing their job are protected in ways private employees aren’t.
“Here, because of the system, because folks are government employees, they have substantially more rights than employees do in the private sector, and that doesn’t always work to the benefit of the veteran,” he said.
A service-disabled Marine Corps veteran who served three years in the early 1990s, Steven Heckman said it took a medical student at the Dayton VA to recognize his frequent pneumonia as a sign of lung disease.
Now, he’s going outside the Medical Center to get care for his lungs. He said his decision to seek outside help is “almost a must” given the VA’s staff and technology resources.
“They need a lot more doctors,” Heckman said. “They need a bigger facility, a lot more doctors, a lot more nurses.”
Still, Heckman doesn’t feel right filing complaints, he said, since the care is free-of-charge and the facility is “over-slammed.”
“It’s not going to change anything,” he said. “I’ve got one of the best nurses out there, that’s why I don’t want to change my team.”
Arthur Hill, 61, was discharged from the Army in 1980 after three years of service and became a VA patient in 1981. Overall, he said his VA experience was pretty good until problems with a prostate operation in 2007 prompted him to go on a VA "healthcare strike."
"To get me back," Hill said, "they would have to — not just for me — they would have to be better off with all veterans."
Hill suggests reforms to the way the VA evaluates doctors and more adequate personnel as solutions to fixing the agency’s problems.
A clinical psychologist for more than three decades, Kathy Platoni took on her fourth voluntary deployment in 2009 as a colonel in the Army Reserve Medical Service Corps, after previously commanding a combat stress control detachment at Guantanamo Bay.
Today, Platoni, of Centerville, speaks critically about the current state of veteran care.
“There’s 2.6 million returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the system is overloaded,” she said. “We have failed to learn the lessons of history and prepare for this.”
Like other veterans, Platoni said hiring military-oriented doctors and staff members could help solve the issues plaguing VA hospitals.
“We have to look at the fact that we don’t have enough clinicals who are trained and served in the military in the VA system,” she said. “It would be wonderful if we could hire some of our retired military folks into the VA system, or people who have at least interfaced with veterans.”
Darrell Rodin is a Xenia handyman who helps maintain property his family owns. He said the VA blew his trust after a series of complications and issues. These include, he said, a misdiagnosed scabies infection and a test for hepatitis after it was discovered a VA dentist used unsterilized equipment.
A few years ago, Rodin paid for his own gall bladder surgery because he didn’t think the VA was acting fast enough. This, in addition to what Rodin claims was a misdiagnosed scabies infection.
“For a time there, it seemed like veterans were an easy pick and easy ones to write off,” he said.
The self-employed Navy veteran pays for his own health care even though he’s eligible for VA benefits. He keeps his VA benefits only as a form of “catastrophic insurance” in case a major health disaster comes along.
Like others, Rodin believes he should be able to take his veterans card to any hospital for care, instead of relying just on the Dayton VA Medical Center.
The VA system directed Marine Corps veteran Terry Singer to a private hospital in 2007 when the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans overwhelmed the system. The government paid the private hospital for Singer’s ankle and foot surgery related to his service.
He said the exchange worked well, and he thinks it could be a model for veteran care across the country.
“(The VA) covered everything and it couldn’t have been better,” Singer, of Fairfield, said of his surgery and post-surgery therapy. “There’s plenty of civilian facilities out there, and they could simply invoice the government and the problem would be solved.”