Iowa veteran Sergeant Brandon Ketchum, United States Marine Corps & Army National Guard, served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result of his service, he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). In the early morning hours of July 8th, 2016, Sergeant Ketchum took his own life. It was reported that he had attempted to get inpatient psychiatric care at the Iowa City VA just hours before his death.
Iowa Army veteran Curtis Gearhart spent two tours in Iraq as a combat engineer. He sought help from the VA in Des Moines for headaches, PTSD and depression stemming from his experiences in war. After reportedly being told he would have to wait for several weeks for an appointment with the VA, he took his own life on November 7th of this year.
In August it was reported that the VA Inspector General discovered the use of “Ghost Panels” at the Iowa City VA, an unauthorized practice involving assigning veterans to doctors no longer practicing at the center. This is apparently done to make the doctor to patient ratio appear more favorable. It is unclear how this practice may have impacted veteran care.
I am currently working to assist a Marine Corps veteran who needs a kidney transplant as a result of severe injuries he sustained when his CH-53 Helicopter crashed. Numerous obstacles, ever-changing information and a seemingly indifferent VA bureaucracy have left him frustrated and cynical. It appears that civilians waiting for this procedure have a greater chance of finding a donor and possibly less of a wait time due to the Kidney Paired Donor Program (KPD), a program that the VA seems unable to join or duplicate for our veterans. The reasons given by the VA as to the challenges involved have changed frequently in the two years I have worked on this issue. Meanwhile, this Marine veteran, injured in the line of duty to keep us free, waits for his needed transplant, undergoing dialysis several times a week.
The CHOICE Program was implemented by the VA to give more options and reduce waiting times for veterans in need of care. The concept was meant to allow veterans to access doctors in their local communities when the VA was unable to meet the need quickly. I have spoken to numerous veterans in Iowa regarding the CHOICE Program. It has failed our veterans, who report having to make numerous phone calls over a period of many weeks while constantly receiving conflicting information and the bureaucratic run-around. One veteran told me he was approved for treatment at a civilian hospital in his area, only to find out that the hospital did not provide that particular service. VA’s initial response to this reality was that the veteran would “just have to wait.”
While many veterans report that once they actually get an appointment and see VA medical personnel they are pleased with the level of professionalism and care, far too many report experiences like the ones described here. Many veterans are simply giving up as a result of being unable to get to someone in the VA that can actually review their situation and take appropriate action.
As a retired U.S. Marine deeply concerned over the challenges Iowa veterans are facing in trying to get needed care, I am honored to have been appointed the Chair of Veterans Affairs in the Iowa House for the 87th General Assembly convening on January 9th, 2017. It is my intention to explore the myriad of challenges facing our veterans and work with our congressional delegation in Washington D.C. to fix these issues. Our veterans, in service to our nation and their fellow citizens, have earned the right to quality care for the health challenges they are facing as a result of that service. Iowans must demand that these issues be addressed with the greatest sense of urgency.
The best way to honor the sacrifice of our veterans is to provide them the care they need. Excuses are not acceptable. It is time to either fix the VA or replace it.