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Fla. veterans voice problems, praise for VA

The federal mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are not doing enough help veterans buy homes.

Some private pharmacies won't fill prescriptions written by VA doctors because no individual physician's name appears on the prescription pad.

Veterans, especially those who are homeless, who wait too long for services sometimes lose hope and commit suicide.

Those were some of the troubles raised by veterans and veterans affairs workers with Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch at a Friday meeting in Boca Raton.

Deutch was there to report what Congress has learned since it began to investigate the failures in health care at facilities run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The scandal erupted this year when it was revealed that numerous veterans had died waiting for medical appointments at a facility in Phoenix and that staff there were keeping secret appointment logs to hide wait times, allegedly to protect their performance bonuses.

Also Friday, GOP Florida Sen. Marco Rubio visited the VA Medical Center in Riviera Beach in response to the scandal. Rubio laid blame for the extent of the VA failures on the administration of President Barack Obama.

"Ultimately I think the administration was too slow to respond," said Rubio.

Deutch gave the group of 30 people assembled Friday the results of a recent audit of VA hospitals nationwide. It said that 57,000 veterans had been waiting more than 90 days for a first medical appointment. Deutch said that while South Florida VA hospitals were able to do initial evaluations of new patients in 18 to 22 days, the reports produced were then sent to VA office in St. Petersburg for processing where "they sit and sit and sit." He said the problem was true nationwide and has resulted in average wait time for decisions on benefits of 400 days.

Deutch said investigators had not found problems in South Florida VA facilities approaching those of Phoenix, although he cautioned that he and other members Congress had not received all the information they need on waiting times. The Palm Beach Post has requested wait times for oncology, cardiology and MRI appointments at the local facility, but has not received that information despite numerous requests.

"We are going to continue to push not only to ensure that every veteran has access to the care they need, but that we work through those backlogs as well," Deutch said.

Veterans in attendance Friday gave the local facility high marks. Norman Manning, a Korean War veteran, spoke movingly about the staff.

"I swear by my life they are fantastic," he said. "My doctor said she was going to take care of me like I was her own son." He said she has.

The VA inspector general's audit found that in 99 percent of cases veterans get first appointments at the local facility within 30 days. Sixty-nine VA medical facilities are being inspected for wrongdoing as a result of the audit, but the Riviera facility is not among them.

But that doesn't mean that the hospital is totally in the clear. VA facilities in Florida are being sued in federal court by Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration, which is trying to win the right to conduct inspections of VA hospitals in the state. The VA says it has its own inspectors and has refused.

Exhibit 1 in that lawsuit is an anonymous letter alleging that some patients at the Riviera Beach hospital suffered or died because of neglect or poor treatment. The letter alleges one patient died after he fell and broke his hip. The unidentified veteran cried out for hours, but was not treated promptly and eventually died of a heart attack, the letter said.

Another patient in his 50s, the letter said, died after missteps by a tired anesthesiologist during a procedure to replace a pacemaker. Rubio said he had discussed the two cases with administrators at the facility.

"The administrators here say that those cases have explanations, that in one instance the veteran chose not to follow a course of care that perhaps would have had a different outcome," Rubio said. "Those instances are under investigation by the inspector general's office as a result of a complaint that was filed, so we'll await the outcome of that before we have further statement."

Rubio noted that nationwide problems with VA hospitals have included claims that staffers tried to cover up information about long wait times and other problems. But in Riviera Beach, Rubio said, "at least from what I heard today, they're being fully cooperative with the inspector general report. If that turns out not to be the case, of course, we'll have something different to say about it."

Rubio authored an early version of a bill that makes it easier for the VA to fire or demote senior officials who perform poorly. That legislation eventually passed the Senate. But he had praise for most VA employees.

"The majority of people who work in the VA are doing a good job and the veterans will tell you that," Rubio said

Deutch echoed him.

"Veterans really appreciate the care they are getting at our VA facilities, but there are still problems that exist that we need to tackle," he said.

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