Georgia nurse becomes advocate for veterans complaining about VA system

The nurse has become the voice of many veterans, shedding light on their frustration toward access, getting a timely response, feeling a sense of neglect.

WOODBINE, Ga.  - Two months ago, Eugene Martin was in good health. Now, the Vietnam Veteran is fighting for his life.

"I'm not doing real good," he said. "I can't even put my shoes on."

He suffered burns to the nerves in his feet.  While being treated for his injury, he sustained acute kidney failure.

"I need some help," he said. "I am just so weak."

Because of his kidney failure he now has Ascites, or fluid is building up in his abdomen, so he is in constant pain.

"It is a scary thing," he said. "You walk to the bathroom and you're out of breath."

Martin, 62, has used the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare system for the past 16 years, but said these days, he is frustrated by the VA.

"I asked them about putting a port in me so the fluid can drain and they said no we don't do that," he said.

A port that not only drain the fluids, but it would also ease his pain. He asked the VA to allow a private hospital in his community to do the procedure, but said he has yet to hear from the VA.

"I feel like I am third and fourth string sitting on the bench," he said. "You have to wait and wait."

His biggest complaint is getting access to the system to the right person for help and he said he is not alone.

"I speak to a lot of veterans and they all say what I say," Martin said.
 
Susan Richards, a registered nurse, has seen a number of veterans in Southeast Georgia, fighting the same fight.

"Veterans like him, one behind the other, with different issues," Richards said.

She not only listens, but has become an advocate. In some cases, she's become an angel of mercy.

"There's no way he can drive to Gainesville and he is not allowed to get it done locally here because of the rules," she said.    

As a daughter of a veteran, she said it breaks her heart to see veterans struggle to get the help they need.

"I know the VA is trying to do everything it can, it is just a broken system," she said.

After making several calls, Richards was able to get a private doctor to help Martin. On Friday, they will drain the fluids from his aching body.

Richards said if the VA made changes to its system, she is not seeing it.  She said the government agency needs to address the needs who served this country.
   
"I just don't believe it is fixed," she said. "It is still broken."

On Your Side submitted the names of the veterans to the Gainesville VA office. They will be forwarded to the Patient Advocate Chief for review.

We also sent the following two questions and received these answers:

Is the system working?

"There has certainly been improvement in  North Florida/ South Georgia as Veterans going out on Choice has provided additional access points to care where in the past they may have been but it’s also important to note that while Choice is an option for some, it has very specific criteria that must be met for Veterans to be eligible for care. What  I can say generally is that Veterans are referred first within VA for services. This is not an arbitrary decision, it’s written into federal law. The main VA hospital is in Gainesville  and a second hospital is in Lake City. Veterans in outlying cities and counties (the North Florida South Georgia System covers 50 counties in Florida and Georgia combined), contingent upon the complexity of the care/procedure needed, are referred within VA to one of those facilities or another VA facility that can deliver those services. Federal law requires eligible Veterans to receive services within VA unless they meet specific criteria or services are not available at which point we offer services through Choice and our Community care partners."

How can veterans access the system?

"The first touchpoint for any Veteran having some instances of trouble or issues accessing care is to contact their Patient Aligned Care team, what we call a PACT Team. If Veterans need to go out for specialty care their provider and PACT team work with the Veterans to determine the best and most appropriate course of care. If there are additional issues impacting their ability to get the assistance they need, they should contact the Patient Advocates who will assist them in navigating whatever issues they may need to get taken care of."

© 2017 WTLV-TV


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