It seems as if every time something goes wrong at VA, I hear all about it. Improperly sterilized equipment that might have exposed Veterans to disease, leads to massive media coverage, uproar among veterans, members of Congress calling for hearings. Would the same problem at a civilian facility have gotten the same media coverage? I strongly doubt it. In fact, I’m not even convinced that it would have made the news at all. Hundreds of thousands of Americans die from preventable medical errors every year. That is not a top story on CNN. VA has much greater transparency and higher accountability and oversight than the vast majority of civilian facilities (which probably only have to meet state reporting requirements).

It also seems that the anecdotes about veterans get greater attention, perhaps because we hold veterans in such esteem and want them to receive the best care available. I went to the ER as a teenager with severe abdominal pain. The first doctor who saw me immediately said, “It’s her appendix.” Subsequent doctors thought it might be an ectopic pregnancy (and a series of other misdiagnoses) – I could have died, and ended up spending a total of 14 days in the hospital for what was, in fact, a ruptured appendix. This story would never get any traction in the media or among my FB friends – however, if that happened to me as a Veteran at a VAMC, I am quite sure that it would be considered not only newsworthy but also as an example of how terrible VA is, especially for women veterans.

However, the plural of anecdote is not data. The reality is that VA outperforms other systems in terms of providing recommended care to patients.

My fear is that when we constantly complain about the mistakes VA makes, we push people away from using the VA, leading them to get care in the private sector at a higher cost that may not be any better – or worse, to get no care at all. If our fellow veterans are not getting the care that they need or deserve because all they hear are bad news stories, we have done them a grave disservice by focusing on the negative. And if too many of us stay away, it gives a false impression of what the actual need for care is. Of equal concern is that members of Congress periodically propose cutting funding for VA, even though the needs of returning veterans continue to grow. If veterans do not use the VA for care there is no argument against slashing the benefits we rightly deserve.

Is there room for VA to improve? Certainly. I firmly believe that we must continue to advocate for those improvements while also publicizing and praising VA’s successes. We must balance our critiques of where VA falls short with recognition of excellence. We must urge our fellow veterans to go in, apply for the benefits they have earned, and seek the care that they need.

Let us also lay blame where blame is deserved. If your service did not allow you to transfer your GI Bill benefits or you hear of someone getting mistreatment at a DoD facility, don’t rush to blame the VA. VA is an organization that is bound by the laws written by Congress and has no authority over the Department of Defense.

Women Veterans in particular complain about the reception they receive at some VA facilities – the best way to solve this is for more of us to go! VA is working to improve awareness about women veterans among its employees and the general public, but we must do our part by showing up and speaking up so that employees and our fellow veterans see us and recognize us. And I hope you will join me in urging journalists to provide balanced and accurate coverage of VA. Critique VA when it falls short, but also highlight the great care that VA provides so that veterans are encouraged to get the care they earned.

Kayla Williams is a former sergeant and Arabic linguist in a Military Intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Kayla is the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, a memoir about her experiences negotiating the changing demands on today’s military, including a combat tour in Iraq. She currently lives near Washington, D.C. with her husband, a combat-wounded Veteran.

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Published on Nov. 7, 2011

Estimated reading time is 3.8 min.

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9 Comments

  1. Cynthia Koehler November 11, 2011 at 3:41 am

    THE VAMCs NEED TO MAKE THEIR EXAM ROOMS AND PROCEDURAL ROOMS AS WELL AS THEIR OTHER ROOMS ACCESSIBLE TO THOSE OF US IN WHEELCHAIRS! IT’S TIME TO GET REAL AND MOVE BEYOND WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS SAYING AND GET A GRIP ON WHAT IS GOING ON TODAY…

    Cindy

  2. Victor L. November 8, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    I appreciate your perspective and your article but you’ve missed the greater concern. 1. Veterans deserve better than they receive currently across the board. 2. VA facilities that serve mostly underserved populations have a great deal of improvement to make in delivery and service satisfaction. 3. Im a disable veteran that works for a medical university that services veterans as well and by fare veterans would prefer other sites if the VA covered this. I don’t think complaining vets deter vets from getting services its the experience.

  3. Dan November 8, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I guess the author thinks if a private hospital exposed hundreds of their patients to HIV or hepatitis because of improperly sterilized equipment it would go unreported. I think not. As far as the statistic of “hundreds of thousands” die due to preventable medical error, the link provided gives just one 100,000 figure. My question than becomes how many of those are incurred in, or due to, VA medical care?

    And, if the author wants to talk about misdiagnosing I can relate several of my own tales. One that comes quickly to mind is the time when I repeatedly (at least once a week for 6 weeks) visited a VA urgent care clinic complaining of the same issue. Finally, a resident made a diagnosis and said, “it is a good thing you were persistent, otherwise it would have been too late in another couple of months.” Another time I was prescribed a medication that was clearly contraindicated because of tests and went into convulsions. So, don’t make it sound like the VA is being picked on. For every horror story you hear or read about, there are hundreds that go unreported.

    The VA is a bureaucracy, and as such it has a primary purpose to perpetuate that bureaucracy. Are there good doctors and medical staff? Obviously. Is there medical staff that are lazy, or worse, incompetent? You bet. How many doctors do you think get a job at the VA because they want to work 8 to 5, or to have their student loans paid, or don’t have to compete in a free market because they know they would never make it? There are a boat load that fall into that category. The worst part of this is they can be terrible without almost ever worrying about getting fired. Heck, they don’t even have to be licensed in the state they are practicing. There is practically no accountability except when the media does latch onto one of these fiascoes.

    If Ms. Williams really would like an eye opener, I would suggest she subscribe to the VA IG reports. Sometimes, you just can’t defend the indefensible.

  4. Gustavo R. Garcia November 8, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    The VA creates its own demise not the veterans.
    The VA, even though by law (38 USC) is not supposed to be adversarial, it truly is, particularly the VBA.
    Most veterans do not understand that the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) is broken down into three administrations, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA).
    When veterans file a claim for disability they are filing the claim through the VBA not through the VHA however because many veterans use the Veterans Claims Assistance Act (VCAA) and the VBA uses the health care providers from the VHA to perform the Claims Exam, many veterans do not see the difference. To the vet is all the VA, and any veteran can tell you how many of the claims go. They get denied, lost, take 6 months to 2 years, etc…
    I have a very different view of the VA than most veterans and do not regard the VA as a whole to be very effective and needs quite a bit of work, but then again it depends on your disability rating. Here’s a little background so you can understand where I am coming from.
    I am a veteran myself; I am also a caregiver for a 100% disabled veteran. I am also a Veterans Claims Agent accredited by the DVA so I see many different aspects of the VA. Because I do not have any service connected disabilities at this moment, my claim is heading to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) even though my disability was annotated numerous times in my Service medical Records, I pay for my medical services from the VA and because I am the caregiver of a 100% disabled veterans I see the quality of care she receives. I pay for bad service, I pay for poor quality, and I pay for rude employees. I pay for these services and so do many other veterans.
    Because my wife is rated 100% she receives very good care and the quality is top notch. We are BOTH veterans none the less. This may be anecdotal, but it is my perception is obviously the same perception that many other veterans have also. I can see how people are treated. Whether I pay for my services or not should not affect the quality of care. The quality should be irrelevant but just a few months ago I paid $172.00 for glasses which the VA completely messed up. I don’t know where the poor quality came from, whether it was from the person who measured my eyes or from the production, I can however say it was not the exam. Why do I say that? Because I also went to a civilian examiner and they concurred with the VA examiner however the civilians produced a pair of glasses…

  5. Thomas Morgan November 8, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Thank you, Ms Williams! It does seem that there are those who rather tear down and critize than do something positive. I have not had anything but great experiences with the professional teams of medical personnel at VA. It is time, we veterans step forward and thank those who serve us and say not only “thank you” but encourage those who detract from the serves we receive to calm down some (translate as: quite a bit).

  6. Jay H Smarte November 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    Thank you for your service Ms Williams and outstanding write up! I agree completely on many of your points and would add too, being election season, it’s also time for self serving media outlets and elites, pols and pundits alike to stoke the flames of American patriotic passions, namely Veterans, particularly with healthcare and other services.
    It’s patently terrible for all VA leaders, staffers, employees, volunteers, beneficiaries, and stakeholders to experience any setback or problem in care and services. As impacting and terrible is the incessant purposeful meanness exhibited by opportunists seeking to capitalize on any such setback or problem.
    VA does so much astonishingly good works and these efforts don’t necessarily receive the spotlight and intensity of a terrible mistake or blatant wrong, and that is extremely unfortunate. I think more application of technology, inclusion of family centered care, expanding services and care for our strong patriotic women, homelessness, community outreach, employment, and so much more are a few of those good works which VA does very well everyday.
    I also share your hope in media gaining foundation and focus on accuracy and balance otherwise far more than VA is in jeopardy. Again, thanks for a outstanding article, continued success and good works, be well…

  7. James Laubler November 8, 2011 at 11:39 am

    I like most of the people I’ve run into at the V.A. Hospital. I’ve had to use the Congressman to get the Chief Executive Officer to get off her duff on my doctors recommendations. But, that’s part of her job.

    What we want is excellent treatment in terms of availability. If we can throw welfare around the states to people who have never served and have been a burden on society, then I think we can do better for the Vets.

    I love my V.A. people. Even the ones whom I think could do a less “party line” job.

    The administration (disability ratings) is so broken that we might need to start over. These people must be institutionalized. For example: We Gulf War vets were hit by so many chemicals that Duke University (among others) found there is a multi-symptom illness that is complex.

    FINALLY, the VA started a commission due to these studies. We are supposed to be given a PRESUMPTIVE rating. Yet, our paperwork sits on desks for close to a year after all the research, medical exams and the file are COMPLETE. Then, I’m hearing that many are turned down for this PRESUMPTIVE illness that hit at least 250,000 men and women. They are trying to wear us down.

    I’m really surprised that somebody hasn’t gone postal. I don’t think my generation nor this new generation of soldiers are willing to “put up” with the same nonsense the Viet Nam vets went through.

  8. Robert Black November 8, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Great article. BUT, you know you are going to catch flack because people will say “preferential treatment” because your husband is a combat-wounded Veteran.

    I does make a difference as to which VA facility you go to. Why? Only God knows. You would think that, like most ‘government’ programs, everything is taken out of a book whether it’s at one VA facility or another, but it’s not. It’s the people.

    I was a DAV driver and transported Vet’s to one hospital & outpatient clinic. 9 out of 10 hated it. At another hospital & outpatient clinic, 9 out of 10 loved it. That’s the one I go to now.

    Here is how I describe ‘my’ VA care to people that ask:

    I couldn’t buy better health care on the ‘outside’ even if I was a millionaire. I’m a ‘regular’ at the Asheville VA, an appointment about once every 6 weeks. I’m a ‘non-service connected’ Vet but it makes no difference. I’ve been an ‘in-patient’ there also many times. Have I had ‘disagreements’? Yes, but nothing that was not addressed with understanding and respect.

    Vet’s are ‘cut from a different piece of cloth’. Many require, if not, demand a different type of care.

  9. Mel Appell November 7, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    I have been going to the Cleveland VA Hospital for 8 years, and have never found it dirty, unsanitary or unhealthy. The doctors and the nurses are clean. The whole staff is friendly.

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