As October 1st nears, the mandates of the Affordable Care Act under the cover of “healthcare for all” loom over our heads. How many people realize that government healthcare has been used in our country for decades? The very same program that everyone pushes as a ‘benefit’ for veterans of our military is the very same program that shows the flaws that come with government-run healthcare. The very same program that scares those of us who have direct experience with how the government manages healthcare programs for the people who are entitled to and deserve it.
As a veteran, I have firsthand knowledge of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the bureaucracy that comes with enrollment. In addition to the ridiculous amounts of paperwork, “evidence”, and administrative hoops to jump through in order to receive care, the care itself is not always what anyone would choose to put themselves through, willingly. Many veterans enter the VA Health System through no fault of their own after traumatic injury or illness and are thrust into a system that could cause one to develop mental illness all by itself. Most vets do not know the VA until they experience the VA. Until you engage in conversation with another disabled vet or one who cannot afford healthcare in the civilian market you would not know what to expect.
Some veterans arrive for the first time at their Veteran’s Regional Office to in-process with the expectation of being treated with respect, care, trust, and friendliness. What they get surprises almost all and turns some away from the care they are entitled to because they are not prepared to add to the list of things they are dealing with, physically and mentally. Administrative staff are the front-line of the VA; they are the people who are there to ‘help’ veterans navigate the paperwork and claims process before getting healthcare through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. They should be armed with smiles, understanding, sympathy, and care but, instead, they are armed with sighs, frustration, side-glances, and unrealistic expectations that the veteran should know what to do at every step. If you do not have the right information with you or the correct forms filled out, don’t expect to get any help until you do. There is no assistance or direction given to make the process more understandable; just form numbers and deadlines. Administrative staff are similar to what you would expect from your local driver’s license office: short-tempered and rude.
Contrary to popular belief, every veteran does not receive free healthcare from the VA as soon as they are discharged from the military. They are entitled to care, free or not, but they must apply and qualify for it. Cost can be little to nothing depending on veteran status or income. A disabled veteran with a Service-Connected disability such as post-traumatic stress or a physical injury as a result of military service is entitled to healthcare, free of charge, after they apply for it and wait for the decision to come down from their regional office. That process can take months and months. A first time claim for benefits requires the veteran to provide “proof” of their service-connected disability. For instance, if a veteran claims to be suffering from PTSD, they cannot simply see a psychiatric professional and have their diagnosis submitted to the VA as proof. They must show that the condition occurred as a result of their military service. Just being in the military, deployed to a hostile area of the country, is not enough.
In my case, I was forced to submit medical records (that the VA already had in their possession but refused to look at until I sent them in), pictures from the traumatic event, an article printed in the Army Times newspaper describing the event, and a memorandum from my Company Commander excusing me from turning in my extra uniforms because they were destroyed by an enemy missile in Iraq. All of these documents, except the pictures and newspaper articles, were already in my personnel or medical records that I downloaded from the VA! I fought with the VA for eight years to receive benefits for PTSD, in spite of the obvious symptoms and overwhelming physical evidence they had access to on their own but would not even consider until they received it, as ‘evidence’, from me. The first psychiatric professional I was evaluated by in 2004 was not prepared for or willing to acknowledge that PTSD in returning veterans was inevitable or possible. I was asked one question and when I didn’t give the answer he wanted, he dismissed my belief that I was suffering from PTSD and my initial claim was denied. Over those following eight years, I was never again sent to a VA psychiatric evaluation to discuss the symptoms I was experiencing. It was not until 2011 that I was finally scheduled to be evaluated by a civilian-contracted psychiatrist for my claim. I spent two hours talking to the doctor during which time she asked many questions and had me recount the most traumatic events for her. This was the first time that anyone from the VA had even bothered to care about why I was complaining of symptoms of PTSD.
This civilian doctor who just happened to be helping the VA with evaluations was part of the reason I was finally approved for benefits for PTSD. Without her and me sending the VA so much evidence that they could never possibly deny that there was an event that could have caused trauma, that I was able to finish an eight year battle with the very same organization that was supposed to be there to help me. I am not done with my battles with the VA. I have an appeal that has not ever left the initial phase of “Received and waiting for review” since April 2011. I have made many inquiries by phone and even through my congressman and still have no answers. I have even been told by VA representatives over the phone that I should just “stop calling” and “it will be decided when it’s decided” and no amount of “stressing myself out about it” was going to make it happen sooner. This is the marvelous government care we are entitled to and deserve.
One of my mental health doctors actually told me a few years ago that he did not even believe PTSD was a real condition. He refused to diagnose it and believed each person deals with stress in their own way and that it is a sign of weakness to claim PTSD. This is a VA psychiatric doctor responsible for caring for returning vets!
Now, once a veteran gets past the administrative process, the medical care they receive is all dependent on the facility they are assigned to visit. For my area, I am assigned to the Houston Regional Office for paperwork but I refuse to seek medical care from that hospital because the staff are overworked and unfriendly. I seek care from the Austin VA Health facility where the influx of veterans is much less and the medical staff are a lot more friendly. The medications I receive from the VA are very limited as well. Only certain brands, types, and strengths are permitted to be prescribed by the VA.
- If there is a drug that will help you with your sleeping problems that come as a result of your service-connected disability, the VA will not be able to give it to you unless it is a certain kind. If you’ve tried multiple medications and nothing has worked effectively you are S-O-L unless you visit a civilian doctor and pay for your medication out-of-pocket.
- If you require surgery that has recently been updated in the civilian market to reduce healing time by using scopes, do not expect the VA to offer that newer surgical method. It is considered experimental to the VA until it has been used in the civilian world for over a certain amount of time.
- When you visit your VA doctor and complain of something that they just don’t think you have, do not expect them to take you seriously. You may be scheduled to receive blood work or other tests to be safe but you will wait weeks to have them performed. Test results are not given to you in person or by phone; you receive a letter with the results and a request that you make another appointment with your doctor if something isn’t normal.
- Physical disabilities are the hardest type of condition to receive care for unless it is a missing limb. Most conditions that cause pain or limitations on a veteran’s normal life are usually treated with a piece of paper showing them how to stretch and a prescription for 800 mg Ibuprofen.
- Don’t ever expect to have more than one condition at the same time and have the doctor take the time to address them all in one appointment. You will be told that focus will be on one thing at a time and that you can come back another day to talk about the others.
- You make your appointments, depending on the facility, anywhere from a week to a month in advance and should prepare to take the entire day off from work or school or whatever. There are no quick appointments.
- For mental health appointments, the doctors can change from one appointment to the next and each time you are required to go through your history even though they are supposed to take notes and enter them into the system that is accessible by all medical personnel. Your medications can be changed at the will of the doctor despite its effectiveness with your condition and the full explanation of side effects and risks can be overlooked or omitted as well.
In my case, I was put on a medication that had a serious side effect of withdrawals after the patient has been taking it for so long because the body builds a natural tolerance to it, similar to alcohol, and would require a higher dose to maintain the desired effectiveness. My doctor did not warn me or advise that my prescription should be for a short amount of time; I was given multiple refills at the same dosage and then suffered from massive withdrawal symptoms that forced me to withdraw from college. I spent months recovering from the withdrawal symptoms of this medication which affected my ability to function in everyday activities. My memory, logic skills, sleep, and mood were severely affected and my doctor did nothing. I advised him of my problems and all he did was remove the prescription from the system and ask me to come in for an appointment.
Is this the type of government-run healthcare everyone is so anxious to receive? This is the care that is given to soldiers that have sacrificed years of their lives, their sanity, or physical ability to serve their country. This is the care that is offered in return for service to their country. Can you imagine the care that will be offered to everyday citizens? Do you think that poor people will be given better care because they are poor? Will uninsured college students be given better care than veterans because they are getting an education? What makes anyone think that if veterans are forced to deal with the type of care they are entitled to and deserve like what I described above that the government is going to treat the rest of the country any better?
Those who support the ACA and believe it will be different are naive. We need to look at the problems with this new law and fix it before it is implemented and forced on the entire country. Take it from someone who has been dealing with government-run healthcare for over 10 years…it isn’t worth it. It is free for me and I still don’t like or use it. I sure wouldn’t want to have to pay for it.