Vets To VA: Get It Right This Time

Posted: June 2, 2014

Veterans Mike Nicolas (left) and Bill Vigar recall their combat experiences overseas and their treatment in the beleagured Veterans Administration’s health care system. Nicolas, commander of the Rion-Bowman VFW Post 632 in Harrisonburg, says delays and long wait times are evident in the system, but adds that “the medical side is excellent, once you are inside.” (Photo by Bryan Gilkerson / DN-R)

HARRISONBURG —With the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki on Friday, politicians aren’t the only ones hoping to see swift and effective reform in the Veterans Administration.

Central Valley veterans also are letting their voices be heard on the VA’s health care problems, which many of them have experienced firsthand.

Shinseki, who tendered his resignation after allegations of long delays, secret wait lists, and bureaucratic cover-ups were confirmed by an inspector general report released Wednesday, will be replaced for now by Sloan D. Gibson, who was confirmed as deputy VA secretary earlier this year.

Local veterans say they’ve experienced some of the problems outlined in the report, although some point out that issues like long medical delays are nothing new.

 “Wait times are getting a little long,” said Richard Knupp, commander of the Myers-Hodges VFW Post 8644 in Bridgewater. He said it typically takes “a month or two” to obtain an appointment, but added that such wait times have been typical of his experience since he began using the VA system in 2001.

Mike Nicolas, commander of Harrisonburg’s Rion-Bowman VFW Post 632, and Bill Vigar, commander of the city’s Amvets Post 7, both said they did not find fault with the VA’s doctors, but rather with the system’s bureaucracy.

“The medical side is excellent, once you are inside,” Nicolas said. 

Nicolas cites his struggle with the VA system as evidence of the agency’s faults. After being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and despite having confirmation from his own doctors that this exposure was responsible for his health problems, Nicolas was repeatedly denied benefits from the VA for 23 years, he said. He was granted coverage only in 2008.

Nicolas stated that the VA’s disability system routinely ignores the recommendations of doctors.

“You might have a doctor say you qualify for 100 percent disability, but then the ratings system only allows for 30 percent,” he said, adding that the appeals process can take years.

Nicolas says he is currently helping 28 other veterans obtain VA services.

Knupp is bothered in part by the declining amount of time he typically spends with a physician.

“The doctor only spends 15 minutes with you ... they used to spend more,” according to Knupp.

He believes the reduction in time is due to the influx of a new generation of disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers of new and older combat veterans, he said, are overloading the system.

Dennis Wayne McDorman, a member of American Legion Shenandoah Valley Post 188, has had mostly positive experiences with the VA. Since leaving the military in 1974, he says, he has been able to schedule appointments with the VA every six months. McDorman, who usually uses the VA facility in Salem, says his only negative experience was having a recent appointment delayed by three months.

As for the current VA controversy, Knupp stated that officials should “investigate deeper than what they’re doing.”

Nicolas and Vigar, who are glad Shinseki is finally out at the VA, have called for greater recognition and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for veterans before they leave the service.

McDorman called the situation “totally absurd,” and an insult to those who served their country.

“Our government and republic should feel indebted to our veterans,” he said.

As for those in charge of the VA department, McDorman said, “if they can’t do the job, get out. If the funds are not there, get them there.”

Knupp still expresses hope in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The VA system is a good system. There’s going to be flaws in everything,” he said. “We have to work through them.”

When asked what ordinary veterans can do to fix the bureaucratic quagmire within the VA, Nicolas said they should put pressure on those in Washington.

“[Veterans] should write letters to their congressman to tell them their feelings,” he said.

He added that veterans who need help in obtaining medical care can always contact one of the local veterans’ organizations for assistance.

Contact Bryan Gilkerson at 574-6267 or bgilkerson@dnronline.com



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