Michael Kelly has experienced increased swelling in his arms, pain in his legs and recurring problems with his memory since having a colonoscopy last month at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“I was not like this before my appendix ruptured,” the Navy veteran of Vietnam said Monday night at a town-hall meeting held by the American Legion in Augusta. “My health has declined significantly. The care here sucks – plain and simple.”
More than 50 veteran patients joined Kelly at the meeting to relay issues about care to the American Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force, a decade-old group that chose Augusta this year as one of 15 VA systems it plans to assess for improvements.
They mostly complained of VA staff and administrators failing to schedule appointments with specialty doctors, as requested by primary-care physicians.
The VA revealed last year that problems in specialty-appointment scheduling led to three cancer patients dying from 2011 to 2012 because 5,100 endoscopy consultations were delayed in the hospital’s gastrointestinal clinic.
“Pull up your sleeves,” Alice Prince said to her husband, Rick Rogers, frustrated by the lack of care the couple has experienced at the VA. “Let them see your arms from Desert Storm.”
Rogers, a retired Air Force sergeant, rolled up his sleeves to display arms riddled with rashes.
“They look good today, but they usually bleed. What’s the answer?” his wife asked.
Rogers said he has run out of white T-shirts without blood stains and that he is regularly bounced between physicians at the Augusta VA and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon for a plan on how to treat his condition.
Each time, he is told to return in six months, in hopes the problem will subside on its own.
“I feel like a tennis ball,” said Rogers, who is diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and sleep apnea. “I just hate getting sent back and forth. It’s not going away, and the VA really has not helped.”
Bob Pollard, an economic support specialist with the Georgia Department of Veterans Services, said 10 percent of the claims he receives each week deal with scheduling primary-care referrals in specialty care units.
“I understand there are a lot of people who need specialty care, but it is just hard to schedule appointments in a reasonable amount of time,” Pollard said. “The VA does a fantastic job with primary care and you have to give them credit for that, but when it comes to specialty care it seems like that is where the system really bogs down.”
Kelly said his visit to the Augusta VA’s emergency room last month is a prime example of the scheduling problems.
Bent over from excruciating pain in his stomach, Kelly said he had an X-ray and a radiologist requested a CAT scan for further diagnosis. Instead, he said, the VA sent him home and told
him to drink clear liquids, saying he had an intestinal virus.
Kelly returned five days later, when the scan revealed a burst appendix. When his appendix shrank to the size of a peanut, surgeons ordered a colonoscopy. But he received no preparatory medications for the procedure, and it was delayed a week.
He is still under treatment.
“There are a lot of people in here who have extremely good experiences with the VA, but there are exceptions,” said Navy veteran Harry Coolidge.
In 2011, Coolidge, a Vietnam veteran, had his prostate removed by the VA with less than 1 percent cancer.
To continue his job as a nurse, Coolidge asked the VA to provide him with special clothing to help him handle his swollen bladder. After the VA failed to reply, he faxed every member of the House Committee on Ways and Means and President Obama a detailed letter explaining his situation. Four days later, he said, the VA was “blowing up” his phone, and a week later he got his request.
“Veterans shouldn’t have to do that, but you have to be proactive in your care,” Coolidge said. “It seems that is the only way to get fast results.”