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The VA Treats Me Well
By Allen Meece
Cardiac arrhythmia means the heart can't "keep the beat." The left atrium, an intake chamber at the top of the heart, starts to quiver instead of pulsing smoothly. It's not a heart attack nor is it immediately lethal but it is unsettling and eventually wears out the heart. At the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center in Miami, I've had two operations over seven years for this condition, and I feel fine.
I like that hospital. As I step into the lobby, I see other veterans wearing hats with their unit's name or branch of service. I was on a destroyer in the lesser-known Third Tonkin Gulf Incident in 1964, and I wear a ball cap that says USS Edwards, DD 950. The receptionist gives directions to my appointment and says, "Thank you for your service."
I like that appreciation for what I did fifty-five years ago. The Edwards had the dishonorable duty of starting the Vietnam War by threateningly steaming inside North Vietnam's 12-mile offshore limit. The Navy told us we were protecting democracy and preventing the "monolithic communist bloc" from invading the US. We didn't understand imperialism, but our intentions were good. Fifty-eight thousand comrades' deaths later, I know why they started a war. Imperialists hate socialism. But I was young, and I tried to serve my country well. I accept the thanks of the receptionist.
At the Miami VA, there's a feeling of camaraderie amongst the patients, and we say "howya doon?" to each other in passing. The medical staff gives us a feeling of being respected for our sacrifices as if they realized we gave long hours of work for peanuts, were exposed to danger and confined to remote duty stations. It feels like they're trying to pay us back for protecting them.
I know the VA is better than commercial hospitals. Once I had a "cold" for ten days, and my body collapsed from lack of oxygen; I was treated in my local corporate-chain hospital for double pneumonia. They charged about $60,000 a week. That hospital's goal, purpose, and vision was to be a commercial profit center. It was run for profit by a management corporation that has 150 other hospitals.
They charged me $10 for one baby aspirin, $250 to put a $20 pulse/oximeter on my fingertip for one minute, five times a day for seven days, for a total of $2,450 for thirty-five minutes of readings. They charged $7,000 a week for my breathing oxygen. I looked over their bill for other insane costs, but their form was incomprehensible. Instead of putting the bill in plain English so the customer might understand the charges, like any other business, they used medical jargon, arcane adjectives, and obscure abbreviations to conceal the scams.
It was a medical profit center, and I was the fodder. The manager, Community Health Systems, was sued for overcharging Medicare and wound up paying ninety-eight million dollars in government fines. Those are not the people I want treating me when my life's in danger or when I have a runny nose. I don't want the VA to go down that route. Keep the VHA intact. Health care is serious.
Years later, the VA paid to send me to a cutting-edge university teaching hospital to have a cardiac operation. I stayed sixteen hours in a ward to recuperate. I saw my nurse once for fifteen seconds during her shift as she popped in and said "howya doon?" and scurried away to attend the more-difficult patients. She was the only nurse on a ward of twenty-five rooms. A medical assistant came in irregularly to "check my vitals" like my pulse, temperature and blood pressure to see if I was alive. They hardly spoke English, and I couldn't get good information about my case.
That is the mindset of commercial profit centers: Keep the service understaffed and underpaid and overworked. Never mind "quality of care." Just buy advertisements and billboards and tell the public that you really do care. Charge them high for low quality. Don't perform real "caring" or you won't be extracting all you can. It's about the revenue stream.
There is a fake "grassroots" organization called Concerned Veterans for America that wants the government to transfer, which means give, the VA hospitals and clinics to an outside corporation with the proposed zany name of VACO, the Veterans Accountable Care Organization.
I'm sure that as soon as VACO is divorced from the government, it'll use its independence to lease out its buildings and contract their management to health-for-profit corporations. And the CVA's website says that they're putting the veterans in charge of their own health! The biggest lie is the most effective lie, as the saying goes. The CVA is not financed by masses of "concerned veterans" who somehow found twenty million dollars to operate it. Sourcewatch.org says they're a front group for the billionaire Koch brothers' extremely anti-social political manipulations.
One change in the VA that helps access to healthcare is the "Choice Program," which lets veterans obtain care from local doctors if there's not a VA facility with a full-time doctor within forty miles of home. The catch is that most facilities are merely community clinics which don't offer specialist treatment so the veteran still has to spend hours on the road and rent a motel room to see a specialist at a VA hospital while there may be doctors in the home town who could do the same treatment.
That's what happens to me in Key West. The excellent Miami VA is 150 miles away, a tough drive that I break into two days' travel time, and a $130 motel stay, to have a comfortable trip. There should be a rule change to allow me to use the Choice Program if there is not a VA hospital within forty, or even eighty, miles.
When I finish my examination or treatment at the Carter Center, I drop by the in-house pharmacy and pick up my prescription that the speedy pharmacy staff fills as fast as any commercial drug store even though hundreds of veterans may receive medicines that morning. They will only charge me $26 a month for my dabigatran blood thinner, not $426 like the civilians have to pay.
"Thanks for the quick service!" I say to the druggist behind the pick-up window.
"Thanks for your service," he replies.
The VA can still improve, but it's pretty damn good for something as big as it is.
Allen Meece was in the Navy from 1962 - 66. He is the author of Tin Can, a fictional novel about a Tonkin Gulf Incident and is available at Amazon.com.