Veteran Brad Harber’s problems with the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center began with a stuffy nose and watery eyes.
What followed was a five-year odyssey as he sought unsuccessfully to get treatment for his allergies.
Harber, a Gulf War veteran, chronicled his experience, keeping hundreds of pages of medical records and recording countless phone calls with medical center officials.
As the VA struggles with allegations of poor patient care and long wait times across the nation, Harber’s case offers a local example of the frustration some veterans feel when seeking help from the federal agency.
“I know for a fact that the problem is they are way understaffed,” Harber said.
“The second thing is, ... even if they had the amount of staff it took, they don’t have the facilities. There’s nowhere to put these people. And the worst part is, it’s very much a morale killer for those employees because many of them are veterans, too. They don’t want veterans to be mad about treatment. They don’t want people to have to wait so long, and I’m sure these people for the most part don’t approve of these (waiting) lists.”
A different story
In the past two months, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been placed in the national spotlight over its fractured system of care, with veterans across the country waiting too long for care.
A Veterans Affairs audit released Monday showed that wait times for new patients trying to see a primary care physician, specialist or mental health professional vary widely across the nation.
Overall, wait-time figures for the Oklahoma City and Muskogee’s Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center Home were generally better than dozens of VA facilities in other parts of the U.S. where there were longer wait times for new and established patients, but officials said they are still working to improve veterans’ access to care.
Harber’s experience tells a different story.
For years, Harber kept hundreds of pages of medical records and recorded phone conversations he had, attempting to obtain consistent care for his allergies.
During a phone conversation in April 2011, Harber talks with an OKC VA employee about the attempts he has made to schedule an appointment with an allergist.
Harber tells the woman he has been waiting, he thinks, three years for an appointment because the OKC VA didn’t have a contracted facility to provide allergy care, he said.
“Three years? My goodness, I was thinking a year was about the longest that we had right now,” the woman says.
The woman checks the system for Harber’s records, trying to understand why he has waited so long. She is patient and listens to his concerns, often agreeing with him during the conversation.
Harber tells the woman that he was told he was on the waiting list.
“I hate to say this, but they told a lot of people that, and there was no such waiting list,” she tells him.
“I understand your anger. I would be angry, and I would suggest that you contact somebody about it, because the only thing I can do is tell you you need to go to your primary care physician and have them turn in a consult.”
Harber tells her that his VA primary care doctor turned in a consult request for him to see a specialist for his allergies.
She tells Harber that, actually, they haven’t. She looks in the system and finds that his consult was scheduled for Sept. 14, 2006. It had been almost five years.
“The note on here says they wouldn’t fee it out — that’s what the request was for,” she says. “... and they declined to fee it out. It was disapproved. It says, ‘We will continue to seek an allergist,’ and that’s all it says.”
“All I can tell you is that’s not going to fly,” he tells her.
“Well, I understand that, and if I could do something about it, please believe I would — I cannot,” she says. “You’re going to have to go higher than me.”
If the VA cannot provide the care that a veteran needs, one option is to provide “non-VA care,” care provided from a health professional outside the VA network, which the VA will pay for the veteran to receive.
The OKC VA network spent about $27 million on non-VA care last year and has a budget of $26 million for the current fiscal year, said Donna DeLise, the associate director for patient care services.
Daniel Marsh, director of the OKC VA, said he could not comment on Harber’s specific case, but he said veterans who wait for as long as Harber did deserve better.
“I would say that they are in the vast minority,” Marsh said. “Never the less, that’s not acceptable, and as one of the leadership at the OKC VA health care system, I will not tolerate that.”
Marsh, who started as director last year, said since he has started, the number of patient advocates, VA staff members who help veterans navigate the system, has doubled from two to four staff members.
It’s a change Marsh said he felt was important in serving the nation’s veterans.
“Many of our folks that work for us could go elsewhere and make more money,” Marsh said. “They choose not to — they choose to work with veterans, and we have a very dedicated work force, and we’re glad to have them all on our payroll.”
The phone conversation in April 2011 with the concerned VA employee was the first time Harber had been told his consultation with a specialist to treat his allergies had been canceled. He had spent months calling, without much luck of reaching someone who could help him.
‘It did some good’
Two months after that conversation, Harber contacted five of Oklahoma’s congressmen in June.
A few months later, he heard from the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center’s congressional liaison. A few days after that, he had an appointment with a doctor about his allergies. It was that doctor’s last day at the OKC VA, and Harber was his last patient to see.
Harber received allergy shots shortly thereafter, and he started to receive better treatment, he said. However, after a year, the OKC VA ended their contract with that allergy shot provider.
Harber then restarted his allergy shots and receives them twice a week at the Oklahoma Allergy and Asthma Clinic, which sits .2 miles from the OKC VA.
Because of his delayed treatment, Harber has suffered from multiple sinus and throat infections. He has undergone surgery in the past year to repair the damage from those infections, he said.
Had he received care in 2006, he could have avoided the money he spent out of pocket to pay for those surgeries, not to mention days spent in bed because of his allergies, he said.
“This is a clinically and well-documented cause of not being treated,” Harber said. “This is what made me so mad when this story broke ... now there are hundreds of people going up here to get shots. I know it did some good, what I did, but I had no clue how extensive this was.”
Contributing: Associated Press