KINGMAN - Cicero Cast'On wasn't surprised to see an elderly gentleman protesting outside the VA clinic on Hualapai Mountain Road.
He knows he's not the only veteran who feels mistreated by the VA. It's a national issue.
Cast'On, who took a bayonet to the gut with U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam, went two weeks without medications he needs for pain and flashbacks. When he visited the VA clinic to pick them up, he was turned away without any apology or explanation.
"They told me they put it on the doctor's desk, but nothing happens," Cast'On said during an interview with the Daily Miner. "You call back, 'What happened?' The doctor doesn't order the medicine on time. They tell us, 'Go to Prescott if you don't like it.'"
It's no wonder some vets "go off," Cast'On said.
Mary Dillinger, spokeswoman for Northern Arizona VA Health Care System in Prescott, said one of the agency's lead doctors called the protesting patient and drove to Kingman that day to take care of the situation.
"Our job is to take care of veterans," she said. "That's our priority. Dr. (David) Brill went up and made sure everything was taken care of properly."
Other veterans had positive comments about their treatment at the VA clinic, and nothing negative was communicated to staff, Dillinger added.
Most of the problems Cast'On has experienced at Kingman's new VA clinic involve scheduling appointments and getting his medications on time, he said.
Going two weeks without his amitryptyline left him "feeling like a zombie," Cast'On said. The pills help him sleep and stop him from having nightmarish flashbacks.
"I can't sleep so I'm tired as hell. I start dreaming I'm back in Vietnam," he said. "It scares you and when you have something important to do, you start nodding off."
Without his hydrocodone, he could barely get up and move around without using crutches.
The Department of Veteran Affairs has made efforts to reform its health care system, including removal of Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman in November. The decision followed an investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General in which allegations of lack of oversight and other misconduct were substantiated.
As part of the department's ongoing effort to improve access to health care, VA is evaluating proposals for a new medical appointment scheduling system. New technology will help improve access to care for veterans by providing schedulers with state-of-the-art, management-based scheduling software.
Kingman veteran Richard Snyder is in a wheelchair and did not join the VA clinic protest earlier this month, but said he could understand the protester's frustrations.
"I can relate through my own personal experiences at the Kingman VA outpatient clinic to these veterans and their purpose of the protest," Snyder said via e-mail.
His primary care provider is Northern Arizona VA Health Care System in Prescott and his appointments are made at the VA clinic in Kingman.
Snyder said he had no health care for two years after being diagnosed with diabetes and ran out of insulin during that period. He was asked by a nurse to physically leave the VA clinic after pointing out a mistake on her behalf, Snyder said.
"The list is a continuous number of nightmares," he said.
Arizona Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he's been contacted regarding numerous cases of the VA putting people on hold and not following through, not only in Kingman, but also in Lake Havasu City and throughout the state. More than 600,000 veterans live in Arizona. It takes forever to get an appointment, he said.
"It's unfortunate that I have to be contacted and then I have to contact them (VA) to get something done," said Borrelli, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran himself. "They're not proactive, they're reactive. It's pathetic that people have to go outside for help. I seem to be the go-to guy to get things done."
In a statement, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said: "We have had a handful of cases for the Kingman clinic regarding appointments. This further highlights the need for fundamental reform and strong oversight as the VA moves to implement reforms passed by Congress."
The VA is simply overwhelmed by veterans who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, Cast'On explained.
"People shouldn't shed it off," he said. "People need to pay attention. A lot of people don't understand. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I wake up screaming."
The VA has made significant progress with its long-term reform initiative announced by Secretary Robert McDonald in September. During that time, VA has taken deliberate actions to improve service delivery for veterans, rebuild trust, increase accountability and transparency and put the department on the path to reform.
"Over the past three months, we've been taking a hard look at ourselves, listening to veterans, employees, veterans organizations, unions, members of Congress, and our other partners. Their insights are shaping our work to chart the path for the future," said McDonald, who has traveled extensively during his first few months in office, visiting 41 VA facilities in 21 cities while also making 11 recruiting visits to medical schools.
In August, President Barack Obama signed a reform bill called Veterans Choice Act, giving the VA resources needed to improve access and quality of care.
The new law allows veterans to seek care from non-VA facilities and physicians if they're unable to obtain a VA appointment within 30 days, or live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility.
The bill allocates $5 billion to hire physicians and other medical staff and improve infrastructure, and $10 billion to fund additional purchased care while building capacity to meet demand.
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