After Bad Experience At VA Hospital, Congressman Works To Fix The System
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Nobody should have to wait hours to be seen by their doctor or to be told that their health records were lost or be given the wrong prescription at the pharmacy, certainly not a decorated veteran of four tours in Iraq. Well, Seth Moulton is not only a former Marine. He's also a member of the U.S. Congress, a freshman Democrat from Massachusetts, and he experienced those things when he went to a VA hospital in Washington, D.C. To talk about that and what he's trying to do about it, Congressman Moulton joins us from Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program.
SETH MOULTON: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And first, why did you go to the hospital?
MOULTON: Well, I hurt myself lifting. I got a hernia. And it happened just before my swearing-in, so I went through the swearing-in ceremony and then went to the VA. I had made a promise to my constituents back home that I would continue to get my health care from the VA, even when I joined Congress. And so there I was upholding that promise. I went to the VA, showed up and checked in at the front desk, and about 30 minutes later, they told me that they had no record of me. They couldn't prove that I was a veteran. But they would consider taking me as a humanitarian case.
SIEGEL: Did you mention that you were a member of Congress at this point or no?
MOULTON: No, I didn't. I wasn't coming there as a member of Congress. I was coming there just as a veteran.
SIEGEL: What did you say to the offer of being treated as a charity case?
MOULTON: Well, I encouraged them to call the VA up in Boston where I had gotten my care until I was elected. And they said they did. It took them a while to get through, and eventually, the Boston office said they could fax something down. And then there was this sort of - an exchange that if it weren't so serious, it would be amusing, where one VA employee said to the other, do you think that fax machine works? And the other shrugged and said, I doubt it, but we can give it a shot.
SIEGEL: What did you present in the way of ID to the VA hospital in Washington that they couldn't figure out that you were a veteran?
MOULTON: To be fair, I didn't have my VA card on me, but I had my license. I had my Social Security number. I had my date of birth - more than enough things to put into their computer system, supposedly the world-renowned VA computerized medical records system.
SIEGEL: Did you eventually get to see a doctor?
MOULTON: I did. And I'll tell you that many of the doctors I've seen at the VA have been excellent. But the whole bureaucracy around the doctors is broken. It can take months to get an appointment. The other veterans that I sat next to in the waiting room had been waiting there for hours. And even back home in Boston, I often found that when my primary care physician, who was a great doctor, referred me to other parts of the VA, I could wait for months just to get seen by someone.
SIEGEL: In addition to the surgery, there was also the issue of a painkiller prescription in your case. How did that go?
MOULTON: Well, right. So I was supposed to get Percocet, which is a powerful painkiller, to take right after the surgery and then longer-term, get some Advil. But they sent me home with just a bottle of Advil. I didn't realize this. I - they told me that Percocet was what I would be taking and what I needed. And so I opened up the bottle and took a pill. And sometime later, it was still hurting an awful lot, and so I went back for a second one and realized that I didn't have Percocet. I just had ordinary Advil. Of course, the pharmacy was closed at that point, so I was out of luck.
SIEGEL: Just to put this in some perspective, I mean, your experience came after what amounted to a national scandal about delays at the VA. It wasn't as if we weren't all paying attention to how the VA had not functioned well and how it ought to function.
MOULTON: That's right. And the frightening part is that by the time I had my surgery and got sent home with that prescription from the pharmacy, they had figured out that I was a congressman. And so if that's the care they're giving to United States Congressman, you can imagine what the average veteran is getting at many of the VA facilities across the country.
SIEGEL: You've proposed some bills to try to remedy the situation. What would they do?
MOULTON: That's right. It's a package of four bills that focuses on recruiting new talent to the VA, investing in existing employees, retaining staff and improving oversight of employee incentive and training programs to make it easier for the VA to recruit top health care professionals and then give them the loan forgiveness programs and other things they need to stay at the VA and continue serving our veterans.
SIEGEL: That's Massachusetts Democratic congressman Seth Moulton who's trying to revamp the VA after his own problematic experiences trying to get care in the system. Rep. Moulton, thanks for talking with us.
MOULTON: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: We received a statement from the Department of Veterans Affairs about Congressman Moulton's experience. It reads, in part, that the VA - this is a quote - "seeks constructive feedback from all of its stakeholders as we work to improve the delivery of care and services to our veterans." It goes on. "We believe we have made progress, but there is more work to do."
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