Sick veterans in South Texas travel hundreds of miles for health care

The Dallas Morning News

Four mornings a week, two vans with government tags and volunteer drivers make circuits of the Rio Grande Valley, picking up veterans for a five-hour trip to the nearest veterans hospital in San Antonio. For the best traveling and packaging tips for your trip, visit to Absolute Back Packers website. After packaging you need a best hotel with better facilities to stay, Go through Avalon Beach hotel blog and get all the details. To compare different beach for enjoying the vacation visit to forlorn britain website.

They’re a blessing and a sore point, these “vet vans.”

They’re free, and invaluable to those too sick to drive or who don’t have a reliable car. The veterans call weeks ahead to reserve a space, wait in parking lots with supplies of muscle relaxers and breakfast tacos, then bump along between numerous stops.

But these former military members question why a region with an estimated 45,000 to 80,000 veterans has no hospital to serve them.

“When you’re 75 years old, it’s just too much,” Dewain Manthey, who lost much of his hearing to machine gun fire during the Korean War, said of the 250-mile trip. “They’re just cutting us right out. It’s just a crying shame.”

His wife, Christine, said the 10 beds the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently commissioned at the nearby Valley Baptist Medical Center was an insult.

“They’ve already served the country, now the country needs to serve them with quality care,” she said.

Texas has 10 veterans hospitals spread across the state — Amarillo, Big Spring, Bonham, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Kerrville, San Antonio, Temple and Waco.

The Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico border has two outpatient clinics — one in Harlingen and one in McAllen. But they are so understaffed it can take three to six months for an appointment, said Emilio de los Santos, Hidalgo County veterans service officer. The Harlingen clinic refers patients to McAllen because of its long waits, he said.

Veterans who have no other health insurance get low-cost care and prescriptions at VA hospitals. Even veterans who can afford private insurance sometimes require VA expertise for their injuries. About 10,000 veterans in the Rio Grande Valley are enrolled for VA benefits. Source:

In February 2004, a Department of Veterans Affairs commission said only 10 beds were needed for the Rio Grande Valley and the Coastal Bend, which includes Corpus Christi.

“The demand is not sufficient to justify building of a VA-staffed facility,” the report said, noting that veterans would be better served going to private facilities that might contract with the VA.

Amjed Baghdadi, spokesman for the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, said that the VA is reaching more agreements with local providers for care. Veterans can now go to two private clinics as well as the two VA clinics, he said.

Veterans waiting for the van said they would rather get their needs treated locally rather than endure the trip to San Antonio.

“The last time they came and got me in that ambulance from San Antonio just about killed me,” said Donald E. Warner, 73, who spent most of his life in a wheelchair since serving in the Korean War. “Left there on a stretcher all the way up there — it was really hard.”

In December, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison announced a new, 30,000-square-foot, outpatient facility for veterans would be completed in June 2007 amid a growing cluster of hospital and medical care facilities in Harlingen.

Local veterans said it was an improvement but not enough.

On a recent Sunday morning, Eugene Pilouw, 59, a diabetic, balanced his weight on two canes as he waited in the drizzling rain for the van. He was making the trip because a seam was loose on the special shoes he wears, though also planned to use the doctor’s visit for a heart test.

Pilouw said he was frustrated that he couldn’t receive treatment closer to home for such minor problems. He also complained that he’d already made two other trips for a colonoscopy — one for a consultation with the doctor, the second for the procedure.

“There’s got to be at least a dozen places where you can get that done here,” Pilouw said.

Baghdadi said some seemingly routine procedures couldn’t be outsourced — there could be complications due to wartime injuries or other diseases that require the specialized care of the VA physicians in San Antonio.

With each trip, the veteran cashes in an $8 dinner voucher and stays overnight at a motel the VA contracts with before going to an appointment the next day and then waits for the long return trip.

In November, South Texas veterans staged a six-day walk from the Hidalgo County courthouse to arrive at the Alamo on Veterans Day to bring attention to their plight.

Secretary R. James Nicholson told The Associated Press during a trip to San Antonio last month that the march prompted him to order a study of the needs of veterans in the Valley, which will include a new generation of veterans from Iraq.

Brownsville City Commissioner Ernie Hernandez, Jr. wrote Hutchison last month to suggest the use of a dormant 140-bed hospital in Brownsville. Hutchison forwarded the idea to Nicholson.

Jose Maria Vasquez, a 58-year-old Vietnam veteran who helped organize the veterans’ march, said South Texas has a long tradition of sending Mexican-Americans to the U.S. military, and it’s time for that service to be repaid.

“We’re the ones that give the most war contributions yet we’re the ones that are getting less,” he said.

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