A U.S. Marine Corps veteran sat in the back of a room filled with nearly 200 fellow vets inside the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library last Friday. Frustrated and in dire need of treatment, the veterans were attending Congressman Steve Cohen's Veterans Administration (VA) medical care town hall meeting to address inappropriate scheduling practices.
"I'm sick and dying, and they're not trying to do anything about it," the veteran said. "I've got prostate cancer, type 2 diabetes, degenerative joint disease, and high blood pressure. It may look like I'm doing all right, but I'm sick. I know that I don't have too much longer to live. I came to see what they've got to say."
Cohen called the town hall meeting after a Department of Veterans Affairs access audit revealed that more than 1,600 patients at the Memphis VA Medical Center had to wait about 30 days after they requested an appointment with a physician. First-time patients waited nearly 50 days on average for appointments. However, 97 percent of the local VA's nearly 50,000 appointments were scheduled within 30 days of their requests.
The meeting featured a panel of officials from the national and local VA including John Patrick, VA regional director for Tennessee and Kentucky, and Jan Murphy, acting deputy under secretary for the VA.
One of the panelists, Dr. Diane Knight, director for the Memphis VA Medical Center, admitted there are some flaws that need to be corrected for the establishment to operate more effectively. She said the facility's emergency department is being expanded from 22 beds to 33 beds to serve more patients. Large monitors have been installed in each room.
"The medical needs of this city are huge, and our veteran population is growing," Knight said. "We've taken a lot of efforts to improve some of the problems. It's not going to improve overnight."
One by one, veterans expressed their dissatisfaction with the VA and how its service has impacted their lives. Some yelled, others cried, but all conveyed the significance of needing to receive appropriate care in a timely manner.
Dennis Spain, a U.S. Army veteran, said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and back injuries that hinder him from having a functional life.
"My back injury really bothered me. I could hardly walk," Spain told the crowd at the meeting. "I went to my clinic and sat there for an hour and a half. After speaking to a nurse, I was sent back to the waiting room for another hour. After that, I was told to go to the main VA to get X-rays. After they took my X-rays, they said, 'Go home, we'll call you in four weeks.' Not one physician ever laid a hand on my body. That's not acceptable treatment."
The VA audit didn't single out Memphis. It reviewed scheduling practices at 731 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide. More than 57,000 veterans waited for care 90 days after their appointments were scheduled, according to the audit. Nearly 64,000 veterans who scheduled an appointment over the past decade have never been seen by a doctor.
"Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not," Patrick said. "We have lots of work to do. We have a challenging environment but an environment I believe we can deal with. We have a system of folks who have committed their entire lives to taking care of veterans. We can't do this work alone. It takes all of us to take care of our nation's veterans."
On Monday, it was announced that President Barack Obama will tap Bob McDonald, a West Point grad and former CEO of Procter & Gamble, to head the Department of Veterans Affairs and clean up what has been described by top officials as a "corrosive culture" at the VA.