The VA pretty much sucks, but you already knew that

Disclaimers

Before you begin reading this post: we understand that the VA is not all terrible. It’s an organization with good intentions but bad habits, to say the least. With that being said, there are plenty of people out there who have never had a single issue with any department within the VA.

Secondary disclaimer,  this entire article is based strictly on my experiences, and my experiences alone. Feel free to read this post, take away what you will and even add some of your own concerns, issues, complaints, and good stuff if you have it.

I’d like to make this post a conversation piece amongst fellow veterans. If you have ideas about making things better, or how you went about fixing anything in regards to the VA, then comment. Because, if we’re going to be disgruntled, let’s be it together while attempting to find a solution.

Background

When I got out of the military back in 2014, I had left it with a lot of back issues—now before you start yelling, well you shouldn’t have gotten out or you should have been med-boarded if it were that bad, know that my choices were limited and the military, much like the VA wasn’t helping me any. Also, due to the military’s *cough-extensive-cough* medical investigation, I never knew how bad my back actually was.

Also, despite my months of physical therapy, chiropractic care, two bilateral nerve ablations, steroids, and too many drugs to mention, the military still thought I was perfectly capable of continuing my military duties.

Now, let’s fast forward past all the stuff everyone knows about getting your VA rating and all that—it happened, eventually, but still, this isn’t the moral of the story.

Since I received my rating in the summer, or maybe early fall of 2015, I have had nothing but issues from the VA. Unfortunately, the 17 things to follow have not been my only complaints with the VA, but it’s a pretty good start.

*Know, while that I’m listing them as a form of venting, I’d equally value your feedback if you’ve had the same issues or worse and how you went about getting the treatment you needed. What steps did you take, who’d you call, what VA facility are you being seen at, what type of answers did you receive to your complaints or are you still having issues?

Personal Issues with the VA

  1. The VA didn’t actually have my rating in the system, so I wasn’t getting free medical care for my issues like I was supposed to be (I didn’t know if you’re over 50% your VA can see you for anything and you won’t have to pay. For instance, my back is service connected, but I could go in for a cold and not pay a dime).
  2. The VA was charging me for my medications (again, if you’re over 50% you don’t have to pay for it, or if it’s for a service connected issue)
  3. I was not getting compensated for my appointments at the VA (if you’re over 50%, your travel should be paid for. You simply have to fill out a form; it doesn’t matter if you live less than 30 miles away).
  4. I was telling my doctor I didn’t want medication, I wanted a long-term fix, physical therapy, chiropractic care, etc. Anything that didn’t involve drugs—she wouldn’t listen and insisted on prescribing me medication I wasn’t taking, yet still paying for.

*This bothers me more because while I’ve asked not to be put on a bunch of meds to manage my pain when I really needed them, the Doctors wouldn’t give me anything—more on that later.

  1. I was told I couldn’t do physical therapy and chiropractic care at the same time—funny how I was receiving both forms of care through the military.
  2. When I went to my first non-VA Emergency Room, I was unable to file my visit because the office responsible for payout wasn’t returning my calls or responding to the official complaints I made. So, despite my eligibility and the nature of my ER visit being something I had a rating for and living over an hour away from the nearest VA ER, the VA claimed I had no rating and was not eligible for reimbursement (that entire process alone took over a year…how long for the rebuttal, no one knows).
  3. When I went to my first VA Emergency Room, my doctor told me I had acid reflux, then told me my back pain was too low for that to be the case, and still gave me their version of Maalox and sent me home with heartburn medication—I’ve never once experience heartburn and I can assure you the pain in my middle/lower back wasn’t that—back to that whole not listening to the veteran part.

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  1. The second time I went to a VA Emergency Room, I sat in the waiting room bent over in tears for several hours, while people with sprained ankles were being seen before me. When I was FINALLY called back, they put me in a chair, where I sat and stared at an empty bed across the hall, still crying and after reporting my pain level as a 9 out of 10—who knew hurry up and wait applied to emergency care too.
  2. The doctor asked me how I wanted him to treat me—umm…sir, I’m not a Doctor, so anything to take away the pain (clearly they need more training if they have to ask the patient about solutions to their medical problems).

*In all honesty, it was probably just the Doctor’s wording that ticked me off, maybe if I’d been seen in less than 5-hrs and didn’t have pain radiating down my spine I would have thought differently.

  1. When changing VA facilities after moving, I could not get anyone to answer their phone or call me back so I could enroll at my new location, preventing me from continuing the weekly treatments I was getting at my old facility—more on that later.
  2. I was on hold for 35 minutes when trying to reach the nurse’s hotline—I realize the wait time on most VA calls averages around 45 minutes or so (from my experience), but you’d think things would be quicker when you’re trying to reach a nurse).
  3. Before the VA finally figured out they weren’t supposed to be charging me for visits. My doctor called me after my official complaint was made, prescribed me medicine that I told her not to give me, told me it was my fault that I wasn’t getting the treatment I needed and should have complained to her first—which I did—and then charged me for a phone consultation. Again, the call was in reference to a complaint, not a desire for more drugs.
  4. I was told it can take two weeks to get enrolled into a new VA facility—this is false, I’ve done it in a day before.
  5. After telling my VA doctor about my back history, and without even looking at my back, my VA doctor sent me home after I reported my back pain being at a pain level of 10/10 and laying on the bathroom floor unable to move for an hour and a half, with a prescription of Motrin—yes we make jokes all the time about how the military thinks Motrin and water are the cure-all, I guess the VA thinks the same way.
  6. The VA sent me a random letter telling me I had 0% disability—this had to have been an accident because my representative looked my file up and assured me this was not the case, especially since I was given a permanent service-connected disability rating.
  7. The VA apparently sent me an appointment letter to assess my non-permanent rating, but I never got it and they’ve threatened to drop my rating. No phone call, no email, and no follow-up appointments.
  8. Now just being a little petty here, but we’re on complaint number 17, so why not. Apparently, you can’t update your phone number with the VA if you don’t know your old one. Yes, I called, verified my name, age, DOB, full SSN, current VA facility, my branch of service, DOS and my current and past home address. Yet, they told me they couldn’t update my phone number that I had 5 years ago unless I remembered it.

Today, luckily, after 11 days of constant pain, ranging from an 8/10 to a 10/10 on the pain scale, I am happy to say my back is feeling like it normally does—typically a 2 or 3 on the pain scale. I found this relief only after receiving care from one of those veteran friendly clinics, something that I ended up finding out was a part of the VA, but the VA failed to mention—it sure would be nice if they told you about the resources they offer.

The VA’s Solution to Pain Management

Now, let’s get back to complaint number four, which I’d like to find some solutions to.

Before I started having back issues, the strongest medication I ever took was probably Excedrin Migraine. I’ve always been the person who was afraid I’d get addicted to medicine if I started taking it regularly, so I combat this fear by not taking anything unless I absolutely need it. This week, I needed it. The most difficult part about this was the fact that the VA was not willing to give me any relief, and gave me a prescription of Ibuprofen. Yet, when I said, my pain was a 10/10 and I laid on my bathroom floor for over an hour, unable to move, it still didn’t change their opinion on how they wanted to treat me.

My opinion, they’re so concerned about turning veterans into a bunch of drug addicts, that they aren’t treating us. But, this creates an entirely new problem. If you’re in an extreme level of pain for an extended time, it definitely puts thoughts into your head that you’d never considered before—unfortunately, that thought is suicide. So, while the VA is preventing drug addictions, they may not be preventing suicide.

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I am fortunate, that my extreme pain only lasted about a week and a half, I honestly can’t imagine feeling that way for years. Unfortunately, the VA doesn’t have a solution to that either. They refuse to do MRIs, I basically had to beg for one. In fact, when I asked about getting an MRI, they said, well we don’t want to do an MRI because the last one 6 years ago only showed moderate degeneration and bulging in about half your discs…clearly that wasn’t enough. Finally, I just made demands. I told them, I’m not waiting to be like I’ve been this week again before you decide to see if my back has gotten worse—clearly it has done that already—all the treatments they were giving me, I’ve done them before, yet I’m still getting worse.

Why do I need to wait until I physically cannot walk before we check to see what’s going on? This series of defending my desire for an MRI went on for a few minutes, until finally, the Doctor said, well if we do an MRI and you needed surgery, would you be willing to go through with it. To which I replied, “I will do anything in this world not to feel like I’ve felt this week. I’d chop my left leg off and give it to you now if you wanted.” Apparently, that convinced them I wasn’t joking about my pain level—I’m now scheduled for an MRI, acupuncture, chiropractic care, one more week of medication and more physical therapy. I’m also continuing my yoga.

My doctor also tried telling me If I were to do more back strengthening exercises my back wouldn’t be as bad after I told him I do yoga 5-7 days/week for preventative measures, also it’s pretty much the only form of exercise I can do without putting myself back on the bathroom floor. It’s as if they don’t want to listen because I said all this before he made that comment.

The VA Enrollment Process

I’ve moved from the main DC VA facility to a VA facility in Virginia, to a VA facility in TN, and then to the one I’m in now. What I can’t wrap my head around is the lack of communication between VA hospitals. Every time I’ve switched, they can’t find my medical records, it shows I don’t have a service-connected disability, and it takes forever to even get my name enrolled so I can continue my regular treatments. Maybe had I been enrolled into this current facility, coming from TN, I could have continued my weekly chiropractor appointments, and maybe I wouldn’t have ended up at the level of pain I’ve been at recently—it’s hard to know for sure, of course, but either way, there’s no reason I couldn’t have been enrolled on the same day and set-up with a PCM.

As I was sitting in the chair, checking in, about to burst into tears from the pain radiating down my spine, I couldn’t get checked in until the representative at the front desk could get my rating—the system was “down”—finally after about 10-15 minutes, she gave up and let me get my vitals at least. Even if I wasn’t service connected, I’ve still had my name in the VA’s system, how was that not enough to get emergency care? What would they have done if I were bleeding out? “Sorry, we can’t treat you, and you’ll bleed out while we wait on the system to load the rest of your medical records…”

What is a Protected Veteran?

Of course, this isn’t anything new. I’m not the first, and I highly doubt I’ll be the only veteran to go through this. The scary part about all of this is the fact that I know there are so many veterans who are in a worse condition than myself. What is the VA doing for those veterans?

I know that privatization of the VA has been the talk of the town lately, and I understand both the pros and cons to doing this. However, when you receive less than even OKAY care from the VA, but amazing care from civilian providers, it’s hard not to at least wonder if it would make veterans’ lives a lot better.

And considering that the care I’ve received from the smallest VA facility was 1000x better than the bigger facilities, It feels like the VA is simply stretched too thin for the amount of care they’re expected to provide. If we could fix this, could there be a mass improvement?

With everything that I’ve said and had issues with, I want to list out/reiterate important things you might not know about, but should.

  1. If your disability is 50% or more, you get compensated for your travel to the VA, no matter the distance.
  2. Depending on where you live, some locations have a shuttle program, and they’ll actually bring you to your appointment and then drop you back off at your house when you’re done.
  3. If your rating is 50% or more, you don’t have to pay for your medication, your visit or anything actually, even if it’s for something that isn’t included in your disability rating.
  4. You need to tell your doctor exactly what it is you want, even if you don’t know what it is you need. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to make demands—respectfully of course—and if that doesn’t work, there’s an official White House Complaint program for veterans not getting the care they need—the departments are required to address your complaint within 14 days of your report.
  5. You can visit a non-VA Emergency room, even if you live within the designated radius (It must be a real emergency, related to your disability given by the VA).
  6. You have exactly 72-hours to report your non-VA Emergency Room visit.

Again, I know that not everyone has a bad experience with the VA. But, if you have real issues, your best bet is to have a different provider outside of the VA. The VA is not health insurance, and it’s pretty much only a good option if you can’t afford the real stuff.

**Remember, this is my personal opinion, I understand not everyone feels this way and not everyone has issues with the VA**

Following my complaints, I’d like to say, I don’t think it’s necessarily the people who work for the VA causing the problems. For the most part, I’ve had nothing but good experiences with the actual people—although, there have been some negative situations I’ve dealt with in regards to the Doctors and mostly the customer service side of the house.

I do believe that a huge portion of the problems within the VA are due to manning—although, there’s still plenty of room for policy changes and all that.

If it wasn’t for a lack of doctors, maybe I could have been seen much sooner. Maybe, had there been more staff in the enrollment office I could have been enrolled in less than two weeks. Maybe, if the VA had accurate, up-to-date phone numbers, I could easily report my non-VA Emergency Room visit. Do you see a trend yet?

Yes, the VA needs more than a boost in its manning, but I think figuring that part out could help with a lot of the problems veterans are having.

How to File a Complaint against the VA

  1. You can reach the White House Veterans’ Complaint line here: 855-948-2311 and the good news, you’ll speak to a real person, who’s a veteran just like you.
  2. I’ve never used this form of complaint, but here’s another location where you can file anonymously (Feel free to let us know if you’ve used this and if it worked).
  3. There’s also a Patient Advocate program, where a representative will help you get what you need. However, I tried it once and had subpar results. Maybe you’ll have a better chance. Click here to learn more.

Potential Ideas for VA Improvements

  1. Hire more doctors
  2. Train the doctors better on medical scenarios
  3. Give VA Doctors a lesson in proper treatment of people
  4. Give VA staff more information on programs related to medical care
  5. Update phone numbers for VA facilities and departments
  6. Make it easier to locate phone numbers on the VA’s website
  7. Get rid of the 75,000 different automation steps before talking to a real person (it took me over 5 minutes of automated selections before I got to the department which connected me to a nurse
  8. If the VA refuses to get rid of automation, then at least put the least important automated responses at the end. Maybe put “speak to a nurse, press 1” instead of “speak to a nurse press 7”

*I’m sure every VA location has a different order in their selections, but so far the above has been my experiences.

  1. Keep the VA opened past 1600, at least until 1700 would be nice

With all that being said, my experience with the VA has been less than stellar. And I can’ t say this enough, but what scares me the most in this situation is that I know there are veterans that are worse off than me. If I’m not getting care, who else isn’t?

Luckily there are other care options outside of the VA, unfortunately, I didn’t know this. A fellow veteran told me that non-VA facilities offer things like free yoga, free acupuncture, free massage therapy, sleep therapy, etc. The requirements: be a veteran in need. Some of these programs are also available to members still serving who need a little extra or aren’t getting the attention they need from their military doctor.

Therefore, if you’re having some of the same problems as I, look up pain relief programs for veterans, or something along those lines and see what’s available in your area.

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I want to reiterate one last time, I am telling my story, not because I want a bunch of sympathies or anything like that. I’m telling you because there was a lot of stuff I didn’t know about, but as a disabled veteran, I should have. Yes, maybe I should have done more research, but it’s hard to research something that you never knew existed. And I’m not sure when the last time you went on the VA’s website or thumbed through their policies, but it’s not an easy read and you can never seem to find all the answers in the same place.

We want your Opinions 

If you can think of any other ways of improving your VA experience and care, please leave us a note so we can add it to the list. It’s easy to sit here and complain all day, but unless you have a solution, not a lot will be done about it. Let’s help each other out and figure out how others have gotten around some of these problems, and make each other’s experiences a little bit better.

How Politicians Have Responded to This Post

We reached out to several Colorado officials to see how they would respond to this post in hopes of getting someone who actually cares.  We reached out by letter with the following:

Dear XXXXXX,

My name is Luke, I am the owner of RE Factor Tactical, a Denver based tactical gear company. At present we host a workforce of over 50% veterans and we are constantly seeing their interactions with the VA. One of my employees has been dealing with an injury she sustained while in the Air Force that is leaving her in severe and crippling pain. I’ve watched first hand her dealings with the VA and I wanted to bring her experience to your attention. We decided to share her experience with the public via our online blog. You can read her piece here. https://blog.refactortactical.com/blog/the-va-pretty-much-sucks-but-you-already-knew-that/ It’s important to add that her experience was so bad that I took resources from our company just to write a blog about how incredibly terrible her experience is.

I sincerely hope you’ll take the time to read about what it’s like to be a Veteran in need of medical assistance.

My guess is that in the past you guys get a lot of VA related complaints, however, I feel as though many of them go unanswered. I am writing to you in hopes of being able to work with you to show you some of the issues of the local VA. I’d like to know how you believe we could potentially change an ongoing issue that has become so prevalent, it’s almost a joke now. I would assume your office’s first reaction may be to file this away in your complaints section only to be addressed at some point down the road. However, I am hoping that our ability to reach your constituents might be of some interest. For starters, we have a very healthy social media presence with over 350,000 Facebook followers, 500,000 combined Instagram followers, 100,000 email subscribers along with another of other healthy platforms such as snapchat and Tumblr. We also specialize in SEO and our website gets up to 500,000 views a month. This means that our article we just posted is about to get a lot of viewers, all who are interested in how their local representatives will respond. One thing we are going to add to our article is that we have officially reached out to you and other politicians within Colorado in hopes of getting some sort of change. I’d love to add that we were able to find a representative that is a champion of the Veteran community and that you are personally looking into it. However, if we simply get back a copy and paste response, then that too will be added to the blog. Our goal here is to offer our readers complete transparency when it comes to how our elected officials are tending to the needs of our Veterans. At this point I think the ongoing Veteran saga is something that has become a social norm, that no-one is willing to pursue. Let’s work together to change that.

XXXXXX, I sincerely ask that you take the time to help us right the wrongs of the VA system, especially when it comes to your local Coloradans.

I appreciate your consideration and response.

Respectfully,

Luke

 

In order to show full clarity of how the various politicians have responded, we will put their responses below.

Senator Gardner

Letter sent on 2/7/2019.  No response yet.

Senator Bennet

Email Sent on 2/7/2019.  No response yet.

2 Comments

  1. Good article sir, and thank you for the letter. We have a sister (Navy) who is in Oregon, fighting the VA now for pain treatment. I’m currently writing a letter, but haven’t found the proper tone. I hope you don’t mind if I plagiarize some of this in that letter. (Her name is Heather Moore, you can talk straight to her if you can access my friends list on facebook)

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