Printed on: December 09, 2012

Paperwork, access to clinics among complaints about VA health care

By Zach Kyle
zkyle@postregister.com

Despite the mountain of paperwork that comes with it, the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system has been a godsend for Vietnam War veteran Dale Jones.

The Purple Heart winner from Roberts has a litany of health problems, including issues with his heart, vision and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jones doesn't know how much his 31 prescriptions cost because the VA pays for them. The total surely would be in the thousands of dollars each month, he said.

Every vet in the system keeps a heavy file full of VA paperwork. Jones' file is about 5-inches thick; and he's run into snags with missing documents and miscommunications with his private insurance.

But Jones said he'll jump through those hoops if that's the cost of doing business with the VA.

"Name (any health condition), and I got it," Jones said. "I wouldn't be as well off as I am now if not for the VA. Yeah, I've been frustrated with them a few times. But with as much as they've helped me out, they've been willing to do what it takes."

The VA's health care system covers 8.8 million veterans nationwide.

Most eastern Idaho counties are part of the Salt Lake City region, which serves about 48,000 veterans. The region covers most of Utah, as well as chunks of Idaho and Nevada, regional VA spokeswoman Jill Atwood said.

As commander of the American Legion post in Idaho Falls, Bob Skinner hears plenty of chatter about the VA among the post's 350 members.

VA health care has improved, he said, and veterans receive first-rate health care compared with veterans of decades past.

"It used to be it wasn't so good," Skinner said. "I think the VA has done a 180-degree turnaround. Veterans are pretty happy with the medical service they are getting."

Jones logs thousands of miles for his various appointments.

If they are lucky, eastern Idaho veterans can access the Ammon facility at 3544 E. 17th St., which is at capacity.

The VA hopes to expand the Ammon space and services in the coming years, Atwood said. At the moment, it is small and limited mostly to primary care and the VA's new tele-health program, in which a doctor can interact with a patient and nurse remotely through video and audio technology.

The next step for area veterans is the larger Pocatello facility, which can handle more types of treatment, including mental health.

Jones used to travel there regularly for post-traumatic stress disorder treatment. Now, he makes the drive weekly for a diet and exercise program.

But most area vets make the trek to Salt Lake City several times a year, if not monthly.

For checkups or procedures pertaining to his heart, foot and other problems, Jones, too, makes the 460-mile round trip to Salt Lake City, sometimes with another Roberts vet needing checkups.

"What would be nice is if they had a facility (in Ammon) like the one in Pocatello and a hospital in Pocatello like the one in Salt Lake," Jones said.

Skinner said he's constantly speaking to veterans who don't understand the benefits they're entitled to or who struggle to navigate the paperwork. He said he encourages them to be patient and get help filing papers from someone who understands how the system works.

"There's a lot of hoops to jump through, but you can get into the system," Skinner said.

The VA is trying to reach veterans through advertising campaigns and at public events like state fairs, Atwood said.

Some veterans are intimidated by the process or feel guilty about potentially receiving help when they think other vets deserve more, Atwood said.

"The 48,000 is far less than we want to serve," she said. "We know there's about 160,000 veterans in Utah alone. The challenge is reaching them."

Zach Kyle can be reached at 542-6746.

Extra insight

Read the McClatchy wire service article that ran in the Nov. 29 Idaho Statesman detailing the Veteran Benefits Administration's 40 percent longer wait time for claims in fiscal 2012 than the year before at tinyurl.com/vawaitincrease.

The Aug. 29 Center for Advanced Reporting offers a collection of in-depth articles on Department of Veterans Affairs matters as well as an interactive map showing backlog statistics for every major VA facility in the country at http://cironline.org/veteransclaims.

For more information about the Department of Veterans Affairs health care, disabilities or locations, check out the department's website for veteran support and frequently asked questions at iris.custhelp.com/app/answers/list.

For more information, call a VA facility:

Ammon (208) 522-2922 n Salmon (208) 422-1096

Pocatello (208) 232-6214 n Boise (208) 422-1000

Salt Lake City (801) 582-1565