JACKSONVILLE, Fl -- Stephen Burcham, 70, fought in Vietnam as part of the U.S. Marine Corps and returned home to fight for his dignity after being stigmatized by a community that was opposed to the conflict.
Now the veteran finds himself in a fight with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Burcham said it began in June when he had to call a Fire and Rescue ambulance.
"I thought I was having a heart attack," he said.
What he was having turned out to be gastrointestinal issues. His hospital visit would reveal gall problems and a hernia in his lower abdominal area.
Burcham said the doctor told him he needs surgery, which requires authorization from the VA.
"I'd like an operation so I can to get this taken care," said Burcham," so I won't be in pain all the time."
Burcham said, after the war, he became a trucker and always had private health insurance, but in 2010 after he was diagnosed with possible effects of Agent Orange, he began using VA for his health care.
He said his early experience was satisfactory, but now he holds a different opinion.
"The VA system is not working, it is getting worse,' he said.
The Marine said he has been waiting for approval for his surgery since June. He said Friday Sept. 14, the VA stretched his patience.
"They called me up and said it would be another eight weeks for written approval," he said.
Why the delay? Why another two months before the operation is approved? The more he thought about it, the angrier he became.
"I'm upset about it," said Burcham, "I called the doctor and talked to the nurses and they said you need to call your legislature, your congressman."
Burcham is enrolled in VA Choice. The program allows veterans who meet the criteria to get their health care in the private sector.
Frustrated, he called the White House Advocate for the VA. Burcham said he is desperate.
He spent the weekend expecting a call from the advocate or anyone who can help to speed up the process.
"I am frustrated, I am frustrated. I need this operation, and I can't get any help. And now, they tell me eight more weeks," said Burcham.
Monday, Burcham received a call saying the surgery was approved, there was no explanation for the delay.
On Your Side contacted the Department of Veteran Affairs and was given this explanation, indicating that any veteran in VA Choice could face the same problem.
This is the statement from the VA:
Although I am unable to discuss specifics regarding Mr. Burcham, our priority is to ensure our Veterans receive the best care. Recently, there have been changes to the VA Choice Program. The VA Mission Act of 2018 enables us to continue our mission of providing quality health care through partnership with community providers. There are many changes in progress to include how we handle authorizations for services. As we transition, we are working diligently to expand our workforce and to reduce the authorization time to under six weeks.
For Veterans that have been referred to community care and have not received an authorization after six weeks we are asking them to contact our Community Care Customer Service line at 352-548-6000 extension 103755.