Local veterans told tales of untreated pain, cancer that went undiagnosed too long and monthslong waits to see doctors. When their needs are too specialized for VA’s Chattanooga Outpatient Clinic, they drive hours back and forth to Nashville or Murfreesboro — that is, when they can secure an appointment.
One woman said she drove all the way to the VA hospital in Nashville just to find out her appointment had been canceled. Then she received notice of her appointment for last week in the mail — but it didn’t arrive until this week.
One man said the VA referred him to a hospital for care and now he’s being sued for more than $100,000 in medical bills, because the VA denied his claim.
VA officials held a town hall meeting Friday afternoon in the waiting room of Chattanooga’s clinic to both lay out plans for future expansion of services here and to hear from veterans who have struggled receiving care. The meeting, and others like it in Clarksville and Nashville, come after months of national discontent with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for its long wait times and clunky bureaucracy.
Isaac Hamilton, who served in the Vietnam War during 1968 and 1969, said he has waited too long and jumped through too many hoops to receive treatment. Outside doctors blamed Agent Orange in Vietnam for contributing to his pancreatic and lung cancer. But he can’t get anywhere with the VA.
“How long’s it going to take?” he said. “Until after I’m dead?”
“Just hang in there, brother,” said a fellow veteran.
Hamilton, 69, said he has been battling the VA bureaucracy since 1998.
“Vietnam took my mind,” he said. “The VA took my life.”
But Tennessee Valley Healthcare System Director Juan Morales said things should be getting better. Under a $17 billion congressional package signed into law in August by President Barack Obama, the VA will hire more doctors and nurses and lease 27 new clinics to expand services. Part of that plan includes doubling Chattanooga’s current 40,000-square-foot outpatient clinic near Eastgate Town Center, to a new space of about 100,000 square feet. The new clinic will add on specialty services like optometry, ophthalmology, radiology, orthopedics and podiatry.
While there’s no timetable on its opening, Morales said Tennessee officials are working to expedite the process.
“When is it going to happen?” he said. “Not soon enough.”
As veterans complained about lack of services, unhelpful VA employees or long wait times, Morales and his staff collected information and phone numbers.
But much of the crowd was skeptical.
“Every time I call anybody they say exactly what you say: ‘give me your name and number and we’ll look into it,’” one man said.
Morales told the veterans that their concerns would be compiled into a report and sent to officials in Washington — which prompted laughs and grumbles from the crowd.
“I know,” Morales said. “But it does get to the leadership.”
He said there’s no question that Chattanooga veterans — a population that continues to grow — need more in the way of medical care.
“It’s something we will continue to push and fight for,” he said. “We will make it right.”
Rose Decosimo, the daughter and mother of a veteran, said these problems are decades old. She was specifically concerned with the frequency of trips veterans must make to Murfreesboro or Nashville for care when there are qualified doctors here at Erlanger, Memorial and Parkridge hospitals. She said she saw the same problem when she was a nurse 30 years ago.
“I think we all agree that there’s something wrong,” she said. “We have all this incredible health care in this city.”
But the stories on Friday weren’t all bad. Some veterans expressed thanks for the care they have received from VA doctors, even disappointment that certain doctors were no longer available.
Glenda Hood said she was “utterly amazed” by the care her uncle, a World War II veteran, received at Murfreesboro’s VA hospital in 2013.
At 92, he entered hospice and had only been given a couple of weeks to live. At home, he had been living off Pepsi and potato chips. But in hospice, he started eating regular meals. Nurses and doctors were respectful and affectionate, Hood said. The staff gave him ice cream every day. He lived for six months there.
“I think the staff needs to know something good, something the VA does right,” she said. “He could not have received better care.”