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Tacoma VFW forum discusses Veterans Affairs frustrations

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer listens to Tacoma veterans' VA grievances

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer listened to Tacoma veterans air grievances with the VA. Photo credit: Gail Wood

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Just five days after Eric Shinseki resigned as Secretary of Veterans Affairs amid a growing scandal, U.S. Rep Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, met with 25 military veterans Wednesday to hear their stories of frustration in getting health care.

Kilmer began the 90-minute gathering at the VFW Post in northern Tacoma with comments about his own frustration with the reported VA shortfalls and cover-ups.

"I'm angry," he said. "But it's not enough to get angry. I'm also motivated to see us make systemic changes and fix this."

Kilmer, who had asked for Shinseki's resignation, commiserated with the veterans, saying there should be criminal charges against those who tried to cover up the mistakes of the VA. He called the mistakes, which included deaths of veterans who didn't get prompt care, inexcusable.

"The very thought of veterans dying while waiting to be seen is something that I feel is unforgivable," Kilmer said. "It's something I think our nation should not forgive."

Kilmer is going to pursue criminal charges against the VA.

"I want to make sure that we get justice and that we also fix the problem," Kilmer said.

Kilmer asked for insights, solutions to what is expected to be a growing problem now that veterans are returning from a decade-long war in the Middle East. But Kilmer got more complaints than solutions.

Sitting around a table, Kilmer listened as veterans took their turn to share their frustrations with getting help in health care from the VA. Most spoke with emotion, their frustration of years of seeking help surfacing.

"Where else are you supposed to go?" one veteran said, shaking his head.

One elderly veteran who had served in "black op stuff" complained of his frustrations with filing his disability claim. Working through the "red tape," he said he's made little progress. He was exasperated with a note from the VA thanking him for his patience.

"I don't have any more patience," he said.

Many had experienced a phone call to the VA only to get a recording that said, "Due to the high volume of calls, please call back."

In response, Kilmer said "the bureaucratic hell" needs to stop and veterans should start getting the "care you deserve."

"To me," Kilmer said, "it's unconscionable that people who needed help, needed care, who relied on the VA to have their backs, to rely on our nation to have their backs, were not only denied service but in many cases not even given an opportunity to see a physician at all."

One Vietnam vet said he was weary of being pushed back in line for health care behind the vets who have recently returned from the Middle East.

"Don't beat us down," he said. "We should all be treated the same. Don't categorize us. We're all seeking the help this country promised."

In addition to the complaints, there were a few compliments. One veteran who had been spending nearly $900 a month in diabetic medicine was now getting it free from the VA. Another veteran said a friend was getting "outstanding care" for a back injury.

A female veteran gave the VA a thumbs up, saying, "I feel like the VA as a whole gives fairly good care." She then added, "One of the things they can do is improve the training for the staff at the lowest level."

Kilmer said congress has discussed several areas VA needs to improve service. He said clearing out the "red tape" is a priority and highly qualified nurses and doctors need to be in the VA hospitals. It also needs to improve its "out of date record system."

"If you read the report you'll see that there's a cultural problem," Kilmer said. "It's not enough to just have a change of leadership."

Kilmer said Shinseki's resignation was needed, but that's not enough.

"In the near future, I think congress needs to be firm with the VA in echoing the tax payer's demands that they improve access to care," Kilmer said. "The VA needs to change its structure. Part of the problem is we've got people trying to look good rather than do good."

Kilmer said the VA needs to improve "it's ability to deliver."

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