VA Health Care Struggling to Meet Soldiers’ Needs


November 9, 2007 – BOSTON — Retired Staff Sergeant Andy Sapp spent 10 months in Iraq with the Massachusetts National Guard. Shortly after he returned home to Billerica two years ago, he felt broken.

“I’m not the person I was and I never will be,” Sapp said.

Andy would look out the window like he was guarding a watch tower or run in a panic from a mall looking for his rifle.

“A loud noise would make him jump. It was sort of a complete withdrawal from us and the world,” said Sapp’s wife, Ann.

Andy realized he needed help and sought it. But the stigma of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is so strong that many soldiers don’t seek help.

For those who do, it’s a long course of treatment. The VA hospitals and clinics only guarantee two years of care. After that soldiers must apply for disability and wait.

“A lot of vets who are bumping toward the end of two years are desperately waiting to have disability claims approved,” said Harvard professor Linda Bilmes. She authored a study on the long-term health care costs of war.

Some at the VA support Bilmes’s idea to immediately approve a backlog of 600,000 disability claims, a quarter of a million from this war alone.

Advocates say it’s necessary to prevent a tragedy.

“They run into a 26-page claim form, a bureaucracy completely overwhelmed and at hospitals, if the vets show up suicidal, in some cases they are turned away,” said Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense.

Such was the case for Jeff Lucey of Belchertown. The Marine Reservist suffered severe PTSD when he returned from Iraq in 2003.

His family says the VA told him he had to get his alcoholism under control before they could treat him. Soon after, Jeff hung himself. His parents are suing the federal government for negligence.

“They have in my judgement a very legitimate case for the negligence of individuals who don’t pay attention to a clear cry for help,” said U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-MASS.

VA New England tells Team Five Investigates patient care is on track.

Their most recent numbers show 99 percent of mental health patients were seen in less than 30 days. But keeping up will be an enormous challenge and could seriously tax the system. Over the next few years, an estimated 900,000 troops will return.

“It’s a tidal wave,” said Harvard University’s Bilmes. “When the soldiers who come home have really experienced the worst of the war, they’re going to have the most serious mental health issues. And we are going to see a significant increase in those veterans who need long term care.”

Massachusetts has five VA hospitals with a combined 78 psychiatrists and psychologists to treat that tidal wave of troops. Community-based vet centers are stepping up trying to help soldiers cut through the red tape.

“I’ve known people who’ve finally gotten to the point they admit they have a problem,” said Sergeant Sapp. “They’ve gone into the VA and because of bureaucracy they’ve walked out. The temptation is to walk away and not deal with it.”

Several bills and proposals are in play to extend healthcare benefits from two to five years, and to streamline the system so soldiers get disability benefits sooner.

But some wonder if it will happen quickly enough for the hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers.

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