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A Troubling Question On The Neglect Of Veteran Health Care

Steven Lee |
May 25, 2014 | 1:08 a.m. PDT


We treat veterans well when they're dead; why not when they're alive? (Protoant, Wikimedia Commons)
We treat veterans well when they're dead; why not when they're alive? (Protoant, Wikimedia Commons)
During eighth grade, I was fortunate enough to participate in the school field trip to Washington D.C. It is during this trip that I recall quite vividly the somber yet beautiful scene of Arlington National Cemetery, the United States military cemetery for deceased veterans. The landscape and tombstones were beautifully kept and the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown was awe-inspiring, to put it mildly. Such splendor is of course maintained through dedication and attention to detail. 

So my question is, if we can provide veterans with such a marvelous resting place, why can’t we give them the same level of dedication and care while they are still alive?

A recent CNN investigation has unfortunately showed otherwise. Retired doctor Sam Foote claimed that veterans waiting on the Phoenix Veteran’s Affairs Health Care System were not receiving treatment in time and that up to 40 veterans have already died waiting. Furthermore, it is claimed that 1,400 to 1,600 veterans have been kept from seeing a doctor for several months.

SEE ALSO: Serving Our Veterans

While all of this seems bad, it gets worse. The Obama Administration was informed by the Bush Administration that there were issues in giving veterans timely aid yet the issues have persisted. The director of the Phoenix VA, Sharon Hammond, apparently also ordered a secret wait-list for patients to be published that differed from the official wait-list, showing a list of veterans receiving timely care, in order to cover up the mistreatment of veterans. 

Quite frankly, there is no more eloquent way to state what many have already said: this is unacceptable. Complicating the struggle is the fact that for many veterans, is not just sprained ankles or the flu for which they are denied care, but rather for severely debilitating mental health issues.

Dr. Jose Mathews, appointed Chief of Psychiatry at the Saint Louis VA, found that veterans had to wait 30 days to receive care for serious mental illnesses. Dr. Mathews stated that suicide was a serious issue amongst veterans in Missouri but that doctors were only seeing six patients a day which equated to a four-hour work day. While the VA office denies these claims and says that doctors actually see 14 patients, the issue still remains that veterans are not receiving timely aid. 

According to the American Psychological Association, veterans suffer from a host of psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, which can lead to difficulty in returning to civilian life and interacting with family members, homelessness or even suicide. 

Estimates show that about 57,849 veterans are homeless each night. Causes include lack of a safe environment and support system as well as substance abuse, another common consequence of mental illness, and if the VA is failing to provide timely and adequate treatment, they are exacerbating the problem. 

Whatever the truth, there needs to be accountability in the medical staff and management of the VA to provide veterans with the help they really need. 

If I needed medical treatment, I could simply go to my medical provider, pay the fee and receive aid, albeit with some wait in the waiting room or a referral to another location. What I think is the primary difference is the fact that I (and an insurance company) am personally paying for my treatment, and if I don’t like my treatment, I have the possibility of taking my patronage elsewhere. 

However, veterans often don't have that luxury, which causes those that serve them to not work as diligently in providing care. I am not placing blame on specific doctors or directors but rather on the system as a whole. As a country, we need to maintain accountability for the way in which we provide medical service to our veterans. If we promise them adequate aid when they return from war, then we must fulfill that promise. 

There should be no excuse for these crimes of negligence, because these veterans are the mercy of the VA system. They often have no power to seek aid and sometimes struggle with very serious issues that need immediate care. 

The Obama Administration needs to do its job in order to create a better system. The system will not come as easily as firing off a bunch of the staff, but rather by impressing the importance of the lives of these honorable men and women. There needs to be a level of liability in order to prevent veterans from becoming homeless or committing suicide.

Having a nice burial site is not enough. We have already asked veterans to gamble their lives once; it is inhumane and irresponsible to make them do so again in a game of health-care roulette.

Reach Contributor Steven Lee here.



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