Local veterans say they are looking forward to the beginning of a new program that will enable those who qualify to get treatment from civilian doctors.
President Barack Obama signed The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 in August, with a 90-day window for implementation. It’s scheduled to take effect November 5.
“We were thrilled, we were absolutely thrilled,” Gabrielle Hanks said about hearing the law was passed. Her husband, Jon Hanks, is a veteran of the Iraq war, with post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple sclerosis. After their experience with the Hampton VA Medical Center, Hanks said she is desperate for the new program to go into effect.
The Choice program includes $10 billion in funding to enable qualified veterans to seek private doctors. In general, the program will help veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days to see a doctor, or who live at least 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility.
Hanks qualifies for the Choice program because he lives in Moon, a part of Mathews County, Va. But Gabrielle Hanks, who is Jon’s designated caregiver, said geography wasn’t the only issue. When they moved from Topeka to Hampton Roads two years ago, they were shocked at the difference between the VA medical center in Kansas and the one in Hampton.
“It took over a month for him to see a neurologist here at the Hampton VA,” she said. “Then, when he did see the neurologist, the neurologist clearly stated to us immediately that he preferred not to work with people with MS, that he enjoyed more working with spinal cord injury patients.”
When Gabrielle told the Hampton doctor her husband’s PTSD medicine made him aggressive, agitated, and somewhat suicidal, she said his bedside manner was appalling.
“This fellow thought he was making a funny by telling Jon he would have to have an X-ray, and [asking if Jon was sure] he didn’t have any shrapnel left in his head from when he blew his brains out,” she said. “Not so funny to someone who is deemed 70 percent PTSD and has serious issues with such matters. Not funny at all.”
Jon Hanks signed a medical records/health information release so that 10 On Your Side could discuss his case with officials at the Hampton VA Medical Center, and get both sides of the story. Despite the release, the center cited privacy concerns and declined to discuss the case.
“The pain is 24/7 and causes him to clench his fists tightly, and I have to constantly remind him to open his hands so they don’t atrophy,” Hanks said. “If this continues, he’s going to lose the use of his hands completely. That means he won’t be able to help anybody with their backpacks, zip up his own pants, button his shirts.”
Gabrielle Hanks said her husband’s condition with MS has severely affected their family: “If he’s doing yard work or anything outside with the children, he may become unable to walk, his foot will drag, he’ll lose his balance.”
She said it only aggravates their problem to have neurologists at Hampton VAMC not give him the care he needs: “There’s no cure for MS, but there are means to slow the progression, and these means are not being identified or proactively addressed by the neurological team at Hampton VA.”
The new Choice program may be the answer, as Gabrielle searches for the best care for her husband. It would run for three years or until the funding runs out, whichever occurs first. But a problem still remains — the program is supposed to go into effect next week, and veterans have no idea how to sign up for the program.
“He meets the guidelines, so we’re going to continue to advocate for that,” she said. “We won’t stop until he gets what he’s entitled to. We just simply won’t stop.”
Gabrielle Hanks said she contacted Senator Mark Warner, who assigned a staff member to her husband’s case. The senator said he has already contacted Veterans Affairs on their behalf.
10 On Your Side tried to get specific information about how the Choice program will be implemented, but the Hampton VA declined our request for an interview. They referred WAVY.com to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.
So, 10 On Your Side called the D.C. location and asked when the local VA centers would get instructions for implementation, how veterans can see if they qualify for the program, how they can sign up, and when the VA would be issuing “Choice cards” to veterans.
A spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs responded with this less-than-specific answer:
The Department’s primary focus is on timely and effective implementation of this highly complex piece of legislation. VA will work with other Departments, Congress, Veterans Service Organizations, and other stakeholders to ensure that provisions are implemented as quickly and efficiently as possible. To the extent that there are significant challenges, we are seeking technical relief, but the goal is to meet the timelines set forth in the Act.
That timeline would be Wednesday of next week. Gabrielle Hanks hopes that the Choice program is ready next week.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating and incredibly overwhelming,” she said about trying to get quality care for her husband. “But we’re persistent in our plight to fight for this entitlement for my husband, and not just for my husband, but for all veterans.”