Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Area veteran battling VA over covering Agent Orange-related health problems

Area veteran battling VA over covering Agent Orange-related health problems

"Am I supposed to be a pingpong ball going back and forth until I die?" Jestus said.

Jestus is among several veterans who in recent weeks have shared with the Southeast Missourian their concerns and accusations about the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, a system they assert is riddled with incompetence and in bureaucracy. The 63-year-old Cape Girardeau resident approached the Southeast Missourian following a recent series on Lucky Sands, a decorated veteran of the war in Iraq who died in February 2010 following a long illness. Sands' family and friends are critical of her care and treatment in the VA system, particularly at hospitals in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and St. Louis.

He claims the VA health system at times has complicated his medical condition with overcrowded facilities, uncaring health care providers and a "chain of command" system of paperwork that has left him buried under a mountain of debt and mental stress.

His health, Jestus said, was perfect for a long time. He worked in the floral business, got on with his life and didn't have any real complaints until he turned 50. That's when the diabetes showed up. By 2006, his health was deteriorating rapidly. He was diagnosed with diabetic nephropathy associated with diabetes mellitus Type II, a related kidney disease, and peripheral neuropathy of the lower extremities, which causes pain, loss of sensation and an inability to control muscles.

Things changed, Jestus said, in spring 2008, when he had a massive heart attack. He was rushed to Southeast Hospital and spent time in the intensive care unit. He said he was stabilized and cleared for release on Memorial Day weekend for an Army medal presentation in his honor. After the ceremony, he was hospitalized and underwent quadruple bypass surgery.

Jestus said the VA would not cover the cost of his medical bills because he wasn't treated in a VA-approved health care center. By protocol, Jestus was supposed to contact Veterans Affairs "as soon as possible" about his treatment. He said that's a tall order when you're in your underwear, incapacitated and in the back of an ambulance.

"Am I supposed to tell the ambulance driver to call St. Louis, 'I'm in the back of this ambulance, can I go to the hospital?'"

At one point, Jestus said, he was on his way to St. Louis for a scheduled appointment approved by the VA and had a heart attack on his way into the hospital, a private health care provider.

"I was admitted, by no choice of my own, and the VA said the bill was to be denied because it was not an approved admission," Jestus wrote in a letter to Emerson. "Another stipulation of the VA rules say that once stabilized, the Veteran should be transferred to St. Louis VA or Memphis VA for further treatment. Why should we have to leave the local area to receive the care needed when it is available locally also?"

While Emerson said she can't comment specifically on any particular case, the Cape Girardeau Republican said she thinks it's "crazy" that veterans must often seek treatment so far from home in order to remain in a VA system, a system that has been criticized for its medical shortcomings. She said a constituent, a World War II veteran, had to go to St. Louis for chemotherapy treatments, hours from his home.
"It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life," she said. "I have intervened in some of those cases. I say, 'This is ridiculous. Let's get them closer to home and reimburse the private practitioners.'"

Emerson said she believes the entire VA health care system needs a "wholesale revamping" and that she's working with fellow House members to set up congressional hearings on the matter.
"I think it's a very cumbersome system, and we need to have somebody outside the system to look at it," she said.

For now, Jestus waits for medical reimbursement. He has a stack of private health care provider bills he says tops $287,000. The VA, in correspondence to Jestus, says it is still processing his application for compensation. In a letter dated Jan. 10, the VA apologizes for the delay.

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