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    Posted March 2, 2014 by
    Dania Beach, Florida
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
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    A Call From the VA... Not Really

    It was after 10pm when the phone rang. On a whim I answered, and was surprised to discover that it was the Department of Veterans Affairs. I didn’t think that they cared! Well, it wasn’t really the VA… not really; it was a company that they had hired to conduct a survey on veterans’ use of healthcare benefits. What, the heck, I thought. Maybe doing the survey could lead to improvements. Lord knows that they needed it.

    First thing was first, I wanted to find out why they were calling so late. You see, I assumed that the computer timed its phone calls based on the recipient’s area code or zip code, so this was actually an attempt to find out where the VA thought I was living. During the past three years I had worked with VA facilities in California, Texas, Maryland, and Washington DC, and still received email or snail mail correspondence from at least three of those facilities. Although attempts had been made to update my contact information, giving your address to the VA does not necessarily mean that the VA has your correct address. Furthermore, the portion of the VA that handles benefits does not communicate with the portion of the VA that provides healthcare, so information provided to one half of the VA is by no means communicated to the other. As far as I knew, the VA thought I was living in three different places.

    My questions were fruitless; she was just an operator with a company that conducts surveys. The computer makes the calls and she reads the script. Roger that. We proceeded with the survey. It became immediately clear that no great changes would result from this exercise. Most of the questions concerned whether I used VA healthcare services, or if I merely relied on them as a back-up. Very few of them addressed quality of service, and those that did were formatted with yes/no answers or “agree,” “slightly agree,” “disagree” type responses. There wasn’t an opportunity to give specific examples, or address specific concerns.

    “Do you use VA health care as your primary healthcare source, secondary, or only as a back-up?”
    The answer: As a very distant back up. Why? Numerous bad experiences. I don’t trust them. Getting there is difficult. The facilities are chaotic; you have to get past the VA police just to get in the door. The administrative staff are usually rude or poorly informed. They are typically insensitive to people with a PTSD or TBI symptoms. I would rather be treated by Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat. But I couldn’t explain that, at least not in this survey.

    “The doctors at the VA provide excellent service and treat me with respect: Agree, Somewhat Agree, Neither Agree nor Disagree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree.”
    The answer: Strongly, vehemently disagree. Why? Where to begin? What about when I was in-patient at the San Diego VA and my doctor changed three times in as many weeks? Or the VA psychiatrist that didn’t want to consult with my military physician, so he just asked me which medications he should prescribe. Or the doctor in Austin who refused to call my prescriptions into the pharmacy near my house and insisted that I drive to the VA pharmacy 45 minutes away (I didn’t have a car at the time). Or the doctor in Washington DC who, after I had taken a cab, a bus, a train, and another cab, then wandered the hallways of a poorly marked VA facility for 45 minutes, then received a downright mean attitude from his receptionist, all to see him, told me to come back tomorrow. Well, I could go on, but it wouldn’t have done any good, at least not in this particular survey.

    I was asked if I used some of the online services, but I couldn’t explain that I couldn’t because in order to access the website I had to request a pin, which would be mailed, but which I didn’t receive because the VA did not have an accurate address, which I could not update because I couldn’t access the website. I couldn’t talk about the PTSD group that I attended – at the VA – where most of the people present hadn’t been to combat. They didn’t ask about how the VA handled records. Or prescription meds. They did ask about the time frame in which I served (2000 to 2011) and if I had served in combat (I had), but there weren’t any questions on how well the VA handled issues like PTSD or TBI, or how well they reached out to homeless veterans (they simply don’t). This survey didn’t really provide those options.

    It’s kind of clever when you think about it. By conducting the survey, the Department of Veterans Affairs can claim that they are actually attempting to improve and address issues. By having a third party conduct the survey, they aren’t putting an actual VA employee on the phone, and there’s no one to be the recipient of particular complaints or the focus of generalized frustration. By offering only generic answers to the questions asked they avoided any specific issues for which they might have to take responsibility. And the best part is that most of the questions centered around how much VA services were utilized, and not why the veteran chose to, or not to, use them. Rather that learning that XX% of veterans questioned are not using VA healthcare benefits BECAUSE of ease or access, quality of care, or a history of poor service, this particular survey allows the VA to conclude that services are simply being underutilized, which in turn will allow them to reduce funding. Pretty sneaky.

    I had begun the survey thinking that I might help improve services for myself and my fellow veterans, but by the time I hung up I was afraid that I had made things worse. At a minimum, the status quo will remain, and that’s nothing to brag about. But then again, I didn’t really talk to the VA, not really.
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