For months, Kansas City resident Cherie Fishback has been writing letters to the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of her boyfriend, Lee Murphy, who last year had to have emergency gallbladder surgery.
Murphy served in the army in the 1980s and is eligible for care at the local VA hospital. But when he tried to see someone there about pain in his stomach, he was sent home with some pills. The next day, Fishback says he called her while driving to work – he'd pulled over because the pain was so bad. She says she raced him to nearby North Kansas City Hospital, where doctors decided to operate right away.
Now Murphy and Fishback are waiting on reimbursement she's not sure will ever come.
"We did everything we were told to do," says Fishback, sifting through a stack of paperwork Monday night during a town hall meeting to discuss veterans' access to care in Kansas City. "This copy of a letter I have from the VA telling him he needs to do something else is dated January 8, but it wasn't sent to us until January 30. It sat somewhere for three weeks."
About 100 people attended the Veterans of Foreign Wars-sponsored meeting at the Uptown Theater to share their experiences at Kansas City-area VA hospitals. Some veterans praised the care they receive there. But many others say lost records, denied claims and policy changes are the norm.
The meeting comes as an investigation into long wait times at a Phoenix VA hospital has brought into sharp focus problems at facilities across the country – problems veterans and their families say aren't new. A report released Monday says at least 188 veterans enrolled at the Kansas City VA Medical Center in the last 10 years never received care.
“We’ve been talking about this for the 40 years I’ve been active in the VFW,” says John Hamilton, VFW Adjunct General. “The stories I hear today I heard when I was a young marine sergeant many years ago.”
Hamilton says he's glad veterans' issues are in the spotlight. But he's also worried everyone is focused too much on long wait times when there are larger, systemic issues that have resulted in sub-standard care at facilities across the country. He says that's why the VFW did not join other veterans' organizations in calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation before he stepped down last week.
"Frankly, it wouldn't fix the problem. The problem is much broader than that. It goes to middle management in some cases," says Hamilton. "It's time for Congress to do their jobs. They have the purse strings. They can allocate funds."
Hamilton says the VFW plans to take stories from the town hall to elected leaders who can help sort out the problems. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has already asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow state oversight of VA facilities.