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Veterans tell their VA woes at Bilirakis’s town hall meeting

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Published:   |   Updated: June 6, 2014 at 12:27 AM

One by one, veterans or their relatives told about the problems they’ve experienced dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Waiting too long for medical attention. Inaccurate diagnoses, Waiting too long to have claims processed.

About 100 people filled the auditorium at New Port Richey City Hall Thursday morning, attending a town hall meeting called by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis in wake of nationwide problems at the scandal-plagued administration that ultimately forced the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week.

Recounting problems voiced locally and around the nation, veterans like Richard Sanchez of Spring Hill raised concerns about their care.

Sanchez, 77, an Army veteran, told Bilirakis that he served in Korea in 1955 and suffered post traumatic stress disorder as the result of the hostilities still ongoing even after the signing of the truce in 1953. But when he requested service-related compensation, he said he was told his PTSD was the result of his wife dying, not his time in Korea.

“That was a slap in the face,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez’ claim was denied because his diagnosis of PTSD was not made by the VA, said St. Petersburg VA Regional Office Director Kerrie Witty.

“The veteran’s claim for PTSD was denied by rating decision of Sept. 26, 2013 because PTSD was not diagnosed by the VA examiner,” she wrote in an email to The Tribune. “The VA examiner diagnosed anxiety disorder. We cannot establish service connection for anxiety disorder as it was not diagnosed during the veteran’s military service. The veteran has one year to appeal this decision.”

Sanchez said he filed his appeal shortly after the denial and is waiting for the results.

Bilirakis said his meeting, which lasted for more than three hours, “was very productive.”

With his staffers taking notes, Bilirakis, vice chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he will use the stories to help his legislative initiatives on Capitol Hill.

“I heard a lot of personal stories and we want to go up there and file legislation and again make sure the veteran has the opportunity to go outside the VA if they have to wait a certain period of time.”

Overall, veterans “are satisfied with the quality of care locally, but frustrated with the inefficiencies as far as the timeliness of it,” Bilirakis said.

Last month, the House passed the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014, giving VA leaders greater ability to fire staff. Sen. Marco Rubio introduced similar legislation in the upper chamber and Thursday afternoon, Arizona Republican John McCain and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders announced sweeping VA compromise legislation that includes Rubio’s bill.

“For months, I’ve worked with Rep. Jeff Miller and veterans organizations to pass legislation empowering the Veterans Affairs Secretary to fire incompetent and negligent managers,” Rubio said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “In recent days, I’ve worked with Senators Burr, McCain and Sanders to ensure that this important proposal was included in their veterans bill that the Senate will consider in coming weeks. I am pleased that real accountability measures are included in the legislation. Considering the deep debt of gratitude our nation owes our veterans, I’m optimistic that the Senate will soon join the U.S. House of Representatives and pass these important reforms. As we look forward to voting on this bill, I will be reviewing it closely to ensure it delivers on America’s promises to our veterans.”

The legislation expands veterans’ ability to get health care outside the government’s scandal-beset Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics.

The bill would allow veterans who experience waits of 30 days or more for VA appointments or who live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic to use private doctors enrolled as providers for Medicare, military TRICARE or other government health care programs.

It also would let the VA immediately fire as many as 450 senior regional executives and hospital administrators for poor performance. The bill resembles a measure passed last month by the House, but includes a 28-day appeal process omitted by the House legislation. It also authorizes the VA to lease 26 new health facilities in 18 states and spend $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses. The VA now has 150 hospitals and 820 clinics nationwide. Senate leaders said they hoped to bring the legislation to the floor soon but offered no specifics.

In New Port Richey, Bilirakis said he also supports legislation that would make it easier for veterans who have to wait for care to have the VA pay for outside treatment.

He also said he is awaiting Senate action on a bill the house has already passed that would provide nearly $12 million for a 150,000-square-foot VA clinic in West Pasco county that would consolidate five other clinics.

Also on Thursday, U.S. Rep. David Jolly received word from Suzanne Klinker, director of the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, that she has “no awareness to a ‘secret list’ and have been proactive in my engagement of leaders and staff regarding my expectations of transparency, accountability and responsibility.”

Last month, in the wake of news about secret waiting lists in Phoenix, Jolly asked Klinker whether the problems existed here. His office will hold its own town hall June 17.

Jolly’s entire staff will be available at the office, located at 9210 113th St., Seminole, to handle “any issues, any claims, any stories” veterans might have, he said.

This story contains information from the Associated Press. haltman@tampatrib.com

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