Long waits and bad attitudes.
Those are the most common complaints of veterans who shared their experiences at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities in the Las Vegas Valley after reading about Sandi Niccum’s ordeal in Thursday’s Review-Journal.
The 78-year-old, blind Navy veteran and longtime VA volunteer experienced long and painful waits for treatment of a colon problem during October visits to the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas.
A chronology of her experiences that a friend witnessed and submitted to the Review-Journal at her request before she died Nov. 15 prompted the VA and a congressional oversight committee to launch investigations into her allegations of mistreatment and insensitive conduct by staff at the emergency waiting room and radiology facility.
Feedback from some who called or sent emails show Niccum’s case wasn’t an isolated incident. Examples include veterans who wrote, “The V.A. has very good personnel. Unfortunately, there are some people that work there that should not be allowed around humans.” And, “The VA emergency room is impossible. They are extremely slow. Their turnaround time is far worse than a regular hospital.”
One veteran, who said she had an experience similar to Niccum’s, wrote, “I had to go in for an MRI and I did. No one ever called me back to give my results. I called and left messages for the provider and her nurse several times and still never received a call back. As I continued to leave messages I would cry … because I was so worried about my results. Finally after a month of trying to contact someone about my results, I asked to switch my primary care doctor to another one. Obviously, that must have been a big deal, because I received a call from a nurse the next day.” The female veteran asked that her name not be used.
On Monday, a World War II veteran spoke openly about his experiences at the VA Medical Center, particularly about an encounter he had in March with employees at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System’s Northwest Clinic.
“I don’t just mean one worker was rude. All of them. I mean they treat the veterans like garbage. Something has got to be done. … They scream at patients,” said Milton Duran, an 87-year-old decorated combat veteran who has lived in Las Vegas for 22 years.
A rifleman with the Army’s 417th Regiment of the 76th Infantry Division, Duran saw 40 percent of his company get mowed down by Nazi machine gunners near Germany’s Saar River in early 1945.
Later in life, Duran was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but only after years of haggling with the VA over claims and his combat record.
Finally, in 2004, with help from then-Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., he was awarded his World War II medals, including a Bronze Star for meritorious service. Meanwhile, the VA also diagnosed his PTSD problem for which he is being treated. Duran said he is rated 100 percent disabled for PTSD.
One day, Duran was checked in by a “grumpy nurse” who suggested he see a psychiatrist for his PTSD. But he was there, instead, to find out about a throat problem. He said she looked at his file in the computer and was vague about an examination he had for polyps.
She told him, “That’s all I can tell you. I can’t tell you no more.”
On March 19, Duran called the VA’s Northwest Clinic hoping to find out about his throat. He was having trouble swallowing and had been waiting 10 days to hear the results of tests. “I was scared it might be cancer,” he said.
Duran later learned that the polyps in his throat were benign. Doctors told him an operation to remove them would be too risky because of his age.
The first time he called the clinic, he was listed as the 14th call waiting and put on hold for 35 minutes. He hung up, then called back two hours later and was put on hold again for 20 minutes.
“Still I couldn’t get nobody to answer me. So I waited another couple hours and called.” This time, Duran was No. 12 in the call-waiting line.
“When they got to No. 3, they cut me off. That’s when I got mad. I told my boy, ‘I’ll get to the bottom of this.’ … So I put my uniform on, just the top part, and I got this picket sign. And went to the Northwest Clinic. I went into the lobby,” he said, describing the sign that read, “VA Unfair to Veterans.”
“Pretty soon the guards came out and said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I can’t. This is my place. I’m a veteran. If it weren’t for thousands and millions of guys like me you wouldn’t be here.’ ”
Police came, put handcuffs on him and issued him citations for an unauthorized demonstration on VA property and disorderly conduct that disrupts operation of the facility. Each violation has a $275 fine.
Duran still has bruises on his wrists from the handcuffs. “When I was in the back seat (of the patrol car), I said, ‘Hey, do something about these handcuffs.’ They’re hurting the hell out of me.”
After Duran was issued the citation, the VA site manager talked to him outside the clinic. “When he came out he was … the only man to ask me, ‘Milt, What’s wrong?’ Had they told me that inside, we could have settled that. Nobody asked me that.
“That’s all I wanted was somebody to ask me, ‘What’s wrong, Milt?’ I would have told them. But no, instead they called the cops. They put the handcuffs on me. I still have these marks on my wrists.”
Later he went to U.S. District Court. A judge, noting Duran’s World War II medals and his age, dismissed his case.
Citing privacy regulations “to protect patients and third party rights,” local VA spokesman David Martinez said officials were unable to comment Tuesday.
“As you are aware, we do take all comments serious and look at any concerns relayed to us regarding care we provide,” Martinez wrote in an email.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Follow him on Twitter @KeithRogers2.