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Despite changes, some vets still displeased with VA health care

By MARTY SCHLADEN | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 21, 2017

Officials with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have been working to increase staff and cut wait times for medical care, but at a hearing Tuesday, the agency's customers didn't sound completely satisfied.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, came to Columbus to conduct a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs at the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Other members of the committee weren't present, but U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Columbus, attended.

As a new generation of combat vets has come home in recent years, the VA has struggled to fill 45,000 vacant positions in the agency, most of them health-care jobs. Nationally, about 300,000 vets are still waiting about a month for an appointment in the health-care system.

Brown on Tuesday blamed the Trump administration for failing to quickly hire senior personnel who can work to cut the vacancies.

"I don't know why the administration doesn't scale up," he said. "There's just no excuse for not scaling up."

However, there has been progress in Ohio and neighboring states over the past year, said Robert P. McDivitt, director of the VA Integrated Service Network for Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

He said the agency has added 383 workers in Ohio alone this year. Now average waits for appointments are two to three weeks for new patients and one week for existing clients at clinics and hospitals, McDivitt said.

With 850,000 veterans, Ohio has the sixth-largest population in the United States. When asked if the VA in Ohio still suffers from large numbers of vacancies, McDivitt said, "we're doing pretty well."

That impression wasn't shared by some of the veterans at the hearing.

James Powers, an Army infantry vet who lives in Massillon, described his struggles after 12 years of service.

"The majority of the injuries I sustained in my military career, they're not even visible," he said.

Suffering post-traumatic-stress disorder, Powers abused alcohol and drugs and in 2014 attempted suicide — something 20 American veterans do successfully every day. During that time, he suffered through long waits at the VA, his wife had a hard time getting training to take care of him and then the VA incorrectly billed them $11,000 for an alleged overpayment, Powers said.

Another vet said she opted out of the system because she has the choice.

"I personally try to avoid the VA system at all costs," said Melissa Twine, an Air Force vet from Batavia, a small community east of Cincinnati.

She left the Air Force in 1998 and then her husband, an Air Force captain, was killed in 2002. Through her survivor benefits, Twine said she's eligible for private insurance offered by TRICARE, the health program run by the Pentagon, and uses that instead of the VA.

The VA this month floated the idea of merging its health system with the Pentagon's, but veterans' groups have objected forcefully, saying that could lead the way to privatizing the VA. Others pointed out that the VA generally cares for an older, sicker population, while TRICARE generally covers younger, healthier active-duty troops, civilian employees, military retirees and the families of all those populations.

Brown is adamantly against anything that could be considered privatizing the VA, saying the idea is being pushed by ideologues in Congress and the White House.

"I think that's simply wrong," he said.

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©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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