Veterans tell I-Team delays could cost them their lives - KCTV5

Veterans tell Channel 4 I-Team delays could cost them their lives

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

Veterans are coming forward saying some of what happened in Phoenix is happening here in Nashville.

They're sick, yet they're facing long wait times and delayed treatment from local VA hospitals.

For more than a year, the Channel 4 I-Team has been investigating the backlog at the local VA and now we continue our investigative series, "Keeping the Promise," our commitment to investigate issues affecting our servicemen and servicewomen.

While the I-Team has heard veterans say they've experienced long wait times for appointments, some now say the delay could cost them their lives.

Terry Jones knows he's at the end.

"It's stressful. It's hard on me," Jones said.

Just talking about the cancer ravaging his body brings the Marine veteran to tears. He already lost his nose to cancer, and next, will be his life. He says the disease should have been caught earlier by the VA in Nashville.

"As far as the nose cancer, they could have done more about it because I told the primary care they should have sent a swab and see what it is," Jones said. "They never did."

Then, on his birthday in 2013, he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.

"I've been going to these treatments, they gave me chemo pills, couldn't take the treatment because I had so many and it has spread so far apart and they said after the second bottle of pills they couldn't do nothing about, it's just me and God," Jones said.

Complaints like Jones' have been pouring into the Channel 4 I-Team from veterans across Middle Tennessee. Most have the same concerns: They're sick, some even dying, yet they claim they've faced long delays for appointments and are not receiving adequate care from the local VA.

We've also heard from veterans' families who say delayed treatment and VA bureaucracy cost their loved one their life.

Lexsen Davis' husband died due to complications at the Nashville VA hospital in November 2010. He received treatment but his widow told us it was too late.

"His ill treatment here at this Nashville VA, along with the wait times, I feel like it's all a bureaucracy culminating together," Davis said.

And, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Department of Veteran Affairs has paid out more than $200 million since 2001 to grieving families who sued and successfully won wrongful death lawsuits against the VA. Nearly $3 million of that came from wrongful death lawsuits against the VA hospitals in Nashville and Murfreesboro.

Navy veteran Joe Frantz is recovering from a stroke and is diabetic.

"They keep postponing and postponing and postponing," Frantz said.

He says he waited more than two years for a VA appointment with a primary care doctor and he's been waiting more than two years to see a podiatrist.

"I called, they told me when I could see a podiatrist, and I said, 'I could be dead by then,' and she said, 'why would you say that,' and I said, 'because I could be dead by then,'" Frantz said.

Frantz says the country he served and risked his life to protect is now letting him and countless other veterans down after they promised to care for them.

"They're like the old insurance companies, deny until they die or they get tired of writing us," Frantz said.

The Tennessee Valley Health Care System oversees VA hospitals in Nashville and Murfreesboro, as well as 11 outpatient clinics in Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky. Based on the latest numbers from the VA, new patients of the Tennessee Valley Health Care System are waiting on average 60 days to see a primary care doctor, 79 days to see a specialty care physician and 41 days to see a mental health specialist.

Channel 4 asked the VA what they're doing to improve wait times and care for veterans.

"We understand there are concerns, and I assure every veteran that we are doing everything we can to accelerate their access to care," said Juan A. Morales, the health system director for the VA Tennessee Valley Health Care System, in a statement.

As for Jones, it's not just his health he fears he'll lose. He hasn't been able to work since he was diagnosed with the terminal liver cancer, and now he's behind on house payments. He's fighting for additional VA disability benefits but he hasn't had any luck getting approved.

"We can't get nothing from them because every time we call them to do something they've lost a paper here, they've lost a paper there," Jones said. "They want me to die before I get my disability, I guess that's the way I'm looking at it."

Despite all that, he's made peace with the fact that he's dying, but he wants to tell his story before he's gone in hopes that it might help other veterans and their fight for prompt and effective medical care.

As for Jones and Frantz, a VA spokesperson tells the Channel 4 I-Team they're looking into their cases, but they don't want to go into specifics. Since news of the national VA scandal broke, the local VA has received extra funding for vets to see private providers. That money will also go toward hiring more doctors, nurses and support staff.

Here is the full statement from Juan A. Morales, the health system director for the VA Tennessee Valley Health Care System:

"VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System (VA TVHS) will use all available resources to improve access and address concerns prompted by the nationwide audit on VA health care access.

"We will also extensively use our Fee Base process which gives veterans the ability to receive care in the local community when necessary.

"Recruitment of more staff is underway to create expanded access for our veterans. New hires of additional clinical and administrative staff will be assigned to our various sites of care throughout Middle Tennessee. This will significantly improve access in areas including, but not limited to:

  • Cardiology
  • Dermatology
  • Orthopedics
  • Ophthalmology
  • Optometry
  • Podiatry
  • Pain Management

"We understand there are concerns, and I assure every veteran that we are doing everything we can to accelerate their access to care. I have assembled a workgroup of dedicated and experienced staff to ensure all necessary resources are in place to begin improving access. We already see small signs of success on this journey. It won't happen overnight, but I am confident that our veterans will ultimately receive the timely, high quality care they have earned through their service to our nation."

Copyright 2014 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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