By Grant Welker
The Veterans Affairs scandal -- in which some VA hospitals falsified records to hide that some veterans faced delays in receiving care -- has raised concerns from local veterans, their community agents, and legislators who worry about the quality and promptness of care in Massachusetts.
The revelations that some VA medical centers carried two patient lists -- one meant to hide the fact that some veterans waited months to see doctors -- has brought nationwide reviews of how veterans hospitals are operating. Those reviews, which include interviews with hospital staff, are taking place at eight New England VA medical centers and 45 VA outpatient clinics.
Recent audits of the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford and seven other VA medical centers across New England have brought "no major or negative findings," according to a spokeswoman.
Local veterans, veterans agents and lawmakers have been watching the controversy closely.
"They're doing a good job," Wilmington Veterans Agent Lou Cimaglia said of the VA. "They're just overwhelmed."
At a small gathering in Cimaglia's office last week, a group of veterans that ranged from a Vietnam vet to a few who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, complaints about services they and others have faced covered many of the frustrations people might face with a doctor's office or hospital visit. Among them: not being seen soon enough for a medical issue, not receiving the results of a test, or not being checked on often enough while at a facility.
But the veterans say their needs -- post-traumatic stress or chronic injuries from war -- aren't the same as those of many others.
"All we're asking for is what's fair," said Matt David, a 26-year-old Wilmington resident who served two tours of duty in Iraq. He's been home since 2011 but still needs sleeping pills to get a good night's rest and jumps at the sound of loud noises that remind him of war. David wasn't in the infantry but still saw the horrors of war and still feels the effects, he said.
"There's not just one type of person that has PTSD," David said.
Audits of the eight New England VA medical centers -- including in Manchester, N.H., and two in Boston -- are complete, with the clinics scheduled to be finished by June 6, VA spokeswoman Maureen Heard said. The list of clinics include centers in Lowell, Haverhill and Fitchburg.
"These are preliminary findings, however. The results received thus far tell a clear story about the dedication and excellence of our staff," she said. "We have worked hard to create a culture based upon serving veterans -- many of our employees are veterans -- and in providing excellence in all that we do."
The VA facilities are also regularly inspected by entities like the Joint Commission, the office of the inspector general for the Department of Public Affairs, and the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.
All those VA centers in New England include almost 12,500 employees caring for more than 260,000 patients.
The controversy has grown in recent weeks since the first reports that as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting care at a VA medical center in Phoenix. National veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, have expressed outrage over the reports.
"This report is the most recent in a succession of preventable death allegations at VA facilities nationwide," the American Legion said on its website.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat who's made veterans issues a top priority, called the national VA reports "deeply concerning."
"The health and wellbeing of our servicemembers is the utmost priority," she said.
"Mismanagement and outright negligence are unacceptable," she said. "In any professional organization, accountability begins at the top but it must extend to every individual, across every rank and position, in order to ensure an effective, efficient and ethical organization."
Tsongas said she will continue working at the federal level and with Massachusetts VA officials, veterans groups and her veterans advisory committee to make sure veterans are receiving the best care.
Her colleague in Congress, Democratic U.S. Rep. John Tierney of Salem, said he has confidence in local VA services and thinks they can be used as examples for others across the country. He, along with Tsongas, signed on to a bill allowing the veterans affairs secretary to fire anyone whose performance warrants dismissal.
"I think everyone is outraged about the allegations," Tierney said. "Everyone is upset, and rightfully so. You have to hold people accountable and get to the bottom of it."
Neither Tierney nor U.S. Sen. Mike Barrett, a member of the state Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, said they've received complaints from veteran constituents about inadequate care. Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, also called Massachusetts' care exemplary.
Massachusetts has a "double safety net," Barrett said, with state programs in place to help veterans who might show up at a homeless shelter, need drug-abuse treatment or mental health services. His focus is keeping that safety net strong, he said, admitting he still has concerns about the high level of need.
"I still worry about how veterans are fairing, and don't get me wrong, there are serious problems in housing and serious problems with a drop in training," he added. "There's a growing drug epidemic that's touching veterans along with other people."
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