A Local Take on a National Scandal
By Alan Clarke
As we hear the daily news reports of injured veterans dying before they could get help from the Veterans Administration, we need to at least consider whether they happened or not. Personally, I do not believe much of what I see or hear in the news today. No doubt in my mind that there are servicemen and servicewomen who have waited long times before being seen by VA doctors, but one must remember that — as we have been told time and time again, “we have the best medical system in the world!” – anyone, service-connected or not, can go to any hospital, walk-in clinic, or make an appointment with a medical practitioner, in time of medical emergency. Indigent people stabbed in the streets are tended to in emergency rooms daily.
Reports of veterans suffering or dying while waiting for the VA to catch up with them, the reports are at least worthy of suspicion. If true, they are most certainly a disgrace. But how necessary is it that the VA be involved in an emergency? If the problem is finances, sure, but get medical help and then call your senator. Don’t die waiting for help. That said, while the Veterans Administration is a government agency and probably does have a bloated and slug-like bureaucracy in the front offices, the back offices and wards have been taking care of hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of veterans for a long time now and without many complaints. At least I haven’t heard any and we know that GIs are reputed to be first-order complainers. I know I was and I wasn’t alone by a long shot.
For over a decade the Providence facility has been providing for my healthcare. There’s a good chance they saved my life because I would never have regular check-ups were it not for them dragging me into the city to have them. I have always been completely satisfied with the caliber of people who tend to me and the care I have received. It has been at least equal to the care I received when I had Blue Cross, R.I. Group Health (RIGHA) or Harvard Medical, earlier in life. I have no complaints with our Providence VA.
The summer before last, I was suffering from Lyme disease. I’d had it before and recognized the symptoms. Ye olde deer tick had nibbled on my leg and left a two-inch red target on my thigh and I felt mucho miserable! Rather than take a trip to the city, I went to a walk-in clinic in Warwick for some antibiotics. Following a miserable three hours in the waiting room, I saw a doctor who did not think the target and symptoms were enough to diagnose Lyme so they did a blood test. I could not get the antibiotics until the test results came back in three days. Frustrated and ill, upon leaving the clinic I went straight to the VA’s emergency room where they made the diagnosis within minutes and a half hour later I was walking out the door with my pills. Later in the week a call from the clinic said blood test was negative for Lyme so sorry: no antibiotics. By that time I was feeling better, thanks to the Veterans Administration emergency room. For the first time in my life, I am afraid for healthcare in this country. Really afraid.
A few years back, after an appointment, while I was waiting for my car to be brought up from the valet lot (yes, valet parking service, and they do not accept tips either), I sat on the bench and chatted with Joe Zaino, another East Greenwich townie. Joe had been seriously injured during World War II and had lifelong problems with his health. He told me that he had been coming to the VA almost weekly since the war for therapy, even got his haircuts there, and was absolutely pleased with the some 60 years he had been doing so. It would have been nice to not need them but he did and they were there.
But, but, but … as veterans with elsewhere experiences are quick to point out, the Providence facility is one of the best in the country. May well be! I have seen the old four-winged brick building continually updated and renovated. Recently a fifth wing was added. The hospital is bright, clean, and freshly sanitized. There is always something new being built or adapted for advances in health care. Could it be improved? I suppose, but it appears there are other facilities needing more attention than ours.
When I hear about the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) website debacle, I compare it with the computer system in place at the VA that keeps records of everything concerning your health. I was told early on by a computer technician (geek) friend that the VA’s computer software is the best in the world for its intended purpose. I don’t doubt it. The evolving VA website will eventually let veterans instantly communicate with their medical team, re-order prescriptions, make or change appointments, and check the results of tests as soon as they are reported out. Ordering prescriptions online is available already.
So as we listen to these reports of dismal failures and perverse scandals within the Veterans Administration, remember that good news is seldom reported and good work gets no attention. Remember the hundreds of thousands of veterans who are attended to each and every day, routinely, without problems. As bloated and unresponsive as the government is, it is inconceivable that the VA would be without its own set of problems, but don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater.
This Memorial Day, besides straightening up leaning flags in the cemeteries, I’m rooting for the kids who have fought in these recent wars and who have come back expecting the country to show them the respect and give them the care they deserve. The best and the brightest have stepped up and done that for us and there’s a certain amount of suffering that goes with the job. We need the Veterans Administration to be there for them. We got a good one here in Providence. Let’s see to it the rest of them are just as good as ours. Support the VA, don’t tear it apart!
Alan Clarke is a local historian and historic cemetery buff.
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