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OPINION - The VA

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) My family has a story about the VA. I'm sure many others do, too.

My Grandfather served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was a decorated member of an honor guard detail that served at hundreds of military funerals. In 1973 he suffered a stroke while working as a contractor in Syracuse, New York. Our family lived in Brooklyn at the time.

He was rushed to the VA hospital, where his wife traveled to his bedside. He was bed-ridden for weeks. Eventually his wife had to return home. She began the process of getting him transferred downstate. It was a nightmare.

The VA, and the military as a whole, have many, many regulations for medical flights. At first my grandfather was going to be put on a regular commercial flight from Syracuse to Kennedy Airport. He'd be dropped off at the airport by a VA staffer, and would have to be met at the other end of his flight by a family member. This was a poor choice for someone who post-stroke had trouble speaking and had just begun using a walker a week earlier. My grandmother refused these travel arrangements, especially after learning it was a non-direct flight. Grandpa would not have been able to change planes in Boston.

The VA operated special medical transport flights, designed specifically for critically sick vets. But these flights were irregular. They were intended mostly for wounded patients who needed to get to specialized facilities for treatment. These were full-blown air ambulances, very expensive to operate, and flew on an as-needed basis. Grandpa didn't really qualify. But he could be a stand-by a second of third patient on a flight that was already going to New York. There'd be no word when or if.

He could also fly on a scheduled military flight. But that would be out of Rome Air Base, about an hour away. These flights were intended to transport regular military personnel. The VA would have to communicate with the base flight-master to arrange ambulance service from Syracuse.

My Grandmother could have driven to Syracuse, discharged my grandfather, and driven him to Brooklyn on her own. But there were no guarantees that hed be re-admitted to the VA hospital once he arrived downstate. An ambulance ride, civilian or military, was cost-prohibitive and had mileage limits.

There were regulations for each option how sick or how healthy the patient could be. Family members had no hope of knowing or understanding all the rules. And people in the VA (and the military overall) are all about following regulations. There was no flexibility.

Grandpa was driven, by military ambulance, to Rome for a regular military flight. When he got there he was refused transport; apparently he was too sick. And he waited at the air field for hours until he could be transported back to the hospital.

Weeks later he was the 'second' on an emergency air-ambulance flight. My grandmother didn't know that her husband was transported until after he arrived at the VA in Brooklyn.

I'm sure much of this has changed over the last 40 years. Today the VA does almost no transporting of patients. This layer of red tape has been stripped away. On the other hand, we now have wounded vets who get treatment and rehab far away from home and loved ones. Generally the vets stay put, and their family has to travel. In the modern VA my grandfather likely would have been stuck in Syracuse, a victim of where his medical emergency happened. His family would have to travel back-and-forth. He'd be discharged when his rehab, his "case", was closed out.

The problem is systemic with the VA. Its a large bureaucracy. It has a labyrinth of rules. One of the reasons for the secret appointment lists at the heart of today's scandal is that the Obama Administration imposed a unilateral standard a two week wait for an appointment without cutting through the underbrush of regulations. So paper-pushers cheated to make it seem like a White Hose mandate was being followed. Thats the easy way out. Top-to-bottom VA reform is needed. And for the makers of secret lists: by not entering appointments into the computer system, you've falsified a government record. That's a criminal matter. The FBI should investigate.


Chris Conley
5.22.14

Image: Veterans Affairs logo