13 INVESTIGATES: VA Care Complaints - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: VA Care Complaints

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Joseph Geoghagen shows Linda his medical file. It's that stack of papers Joseph Geoghagen shows Linda his medical file. It's that stack of papers
Jeffrey Ryon Steele shows Linda letters of complaint he has sent to the OIG and the Birmingham VA. Jeffrey Ryon Steele shows Linda letters of complaint he has sent to the OIG and the Birmingham VA.
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BIRMINGHAM, AL - Two different men, in different branches of the military, who have similar complaints about the Birmingham Veteran's Medical Center - what they call shoddy health care.

"I do want to say that there are good people in the VA they're just kind of overshadowed by the not so good people," said Veteran Ryon Steele.

"I really don't expect much out of the VA anymore.," added Veteran Joseph Geoghagan.

Birmingham VA Chief of Staff Dr. Bill Harper says opinions differ when it comes to patient care.

"We have a cadre of people that are very happy, and we have a cadre of people who aren't so happy," Harper said.

Joseph Geoghagan is one of those people who is not happy. He served four and a half years in the Navy and deployed three times to the Iraq waters, Afghanistan and a post stateside.

Since his honorable discharge, he's had a long list of health issues - ranging from PTSD, major depression and Failure to Thrive. Geoghagan says he's unable to keep down food and uses a nutritional shake through a feeding tube 13 hours a day as his only form of food.

"I used to weigh 267 some pounds. I weigh 133 lbs now," explained Geoghagan. "At what point am I supposed to stop worrying about random seizures, internal systems are starting to shut down and things that are serious. I mean I'm seriously scared but I don't know what I can do."

RELATED: Gov. Bentley on veterans' healthcare through the VA

Geoghagan says he's unable to get answers through patient advocates at the VA. He claims he tries to follow the chain of command like any good soldier but has yet to get an effective treatment plan.

"I try to play by the rules but it gets to a point where you're just hopeless. You got nothing," said Geoghagan.

Although Dr. Harper couldn't answer specifically about Geoghagen's case, we asked if it was acceptable for him not to have an effective treatment plan in place.

"Well, if that was really the case, then no that's not acceptable. But it just depends on what your definition of an acceptable care plan is," answered Dr. Harper.

Jeffery Ryon Steele served for five years in the Army. He told me he was deployed twice to Iraq and suffers from severe PTSD, muscle damage and a slight hearing loss.

"It's infuriating especially given the particular circumstances of the situation," Steele said.

After moving from Cincinnati and using the VA there, he's had problems with getting the Birmingham VA to acknowledge his prescription regimen and dosage. Continuingly running low on medications, Steele wrote a total of three complaint letters over a seven month time period.

His letters were written first to the Office of Inspector General - an office designed to detect and prevent fraud, waste and abuse within VA programs and then to the Birmingham VA's director.

In the first written response - Steele was told his case wasn't selected for "formal review" and that he should contact a patient advocate at the Birmingham VA. So he went to speak to one in person.

"He still said, let's just wait and see what happens, so I went and started knocking on doors and got my medication," Steele said.

In Steele's case, he was so fed up with what he felt was the runaround, he chose to go the private insurance route with his new employer.

RELATED: Private hospitals could take pressure off of the VA

When asked if he was ever able to get his correct prescription and the correct dosage, Steele answered “No, I eventually gave up and went with UAB for a while and like I said, since I've gone private, I'll never go back."

Concerning Steele's complaint and his inability to get his prescription, Dr. Harper said he wouldn't blindly approve what a previous doctor had ordered without verifying a diagnosis and or looking at alternatives.

Dr. Harper claims approval times can vary.

"Depends on the situation," said Dr. Harper. "I can't answer that, it just depends on what the situation is. The patient should not have run out of medication at all. We try not to do that. It may not have been the same medication that he'd been used to."

Not everyone is unhappy with the VA's service. We found two vets on the day we interviewed Dr. Harper who swear by the service.

Navy Veteran said, "Overall I'm happy, I've got a few nitpicks but I'm happy."

"I just like it. I always meet old friends and I just like it. I have not had any problems," said Veteran Simon Jones.

According to the Medicare website on hospital comparison, The Birmingham VA ranks equal to and/or above average in three areas - treatment of heart attacks, pneumonia and surgical care. Patient satisfaction ratings were unavailable.

"So the quality of the care, I would put up against anyone else in the country and the proof is in the pudding," Dr. Harper added.

While Steele is able to work and found private insurance, Geoghagen, unable to work, is losing hope on finding a diagnosis and effective treatment for his symptoms.

In the wake of long wait times at numerous VA hospitals across the country, according to Harper, surveyors found Birmingham's VA had not done anything wrong but did find it needed to tweak its scheduling practices. Clerical staff and their supervisors are going through additional training.



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