THE BLOG
10/14/2013 12:25 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Young Veteran's First Encounter With VA Health Care

So, I guess my expectations were that VA health care would be akin to the well-oiled medical care I encountered while on active duty in the Army. That was a mistake on my part. In fact, the experience was such a contrast that I am sharing what I learned so that other veterans might know the scoop and better navigate the VA (or, if you are a family member of a veteran, you could better guide them).

I have to state upfront that the people I encountered in VA health care could not have been nicer and genuinely interested in my care. But, they try to make the best of a flawed system, as you will see.

Out of Sight. Out of Mind.

You may not need VA health care right away, but don't forget about it. I hear stores all the time of injuries or conditions surfacing years after completing military service. Just because the injuries happened long ago doesn't mean that you can't seek the VA's help when they arise.

I have a 10 percent rating on my knee that has $0 compensation tied to it. However, it does entitle me to VA health care as the knee gives me trouble. That trouble was a sharp pain in the back of my knee that set in two months ago. I thought it would pass, but when it didn't I remembered the VA and thought it wise to go to them in case something more might be going on. It could be nothing, but if it was serious, the VA doctors would be the ones evaluating me which sounded smart.

If You're Going to Go To Hell, You Still Need To Go Through Your Primary Care Physician

My knee is in pain. Do I go through my assigned VA primary care physician or direct to Ortho to get the knee evaluated? Seems like a simple question. But when I called the VA clinic I kept getting transferred to a nurse system that was supposed to call me back to speak about my pain and figure out the next best step -- ok, that sounds smart. Unfortunately, I never got the callback.

After a couple of days I called back just to get a call service to tell me that the nurse would call me back. This repeated until the fifth day when I finally was able to get a nurse live on the line. First, she clarified that I had to go to my primary care physician to get a referral to Ortho -- got it. But then she stated I couldn't get in to see him for at least a week or two.

I'm in pain, and it's getting worse. Climbing stairs is a challenge, and now I need to wait another couple weeks?

In Case of Emergency

"Go to the E.R. at the VA Hospital," directed the VA nurse. But, I'm not an emergency situation. How could I go take up a valuable E.R. room for any amount of time? "You are in pain, and need to be seen. Go to the E.R.," she insisted. Ok, I will.

I got a sense that this was the backstop for vets who need help but the normal scheduling times were not fast enough for their condition. My presence didn't seem to faze any of the staff and they dutifully provided me care for my knee -- quite good care. After an X-ray, the doctor had a good approach to temporarily reduce the pain and get me scheduled for an MRI to see if there was damage in the knee.

God Helps Those Who Help Themself

With the MRI ordered, I called imaging to go ahead and set a date for the scan. "Sir, I have a stack of orders and I go through them in order. When I get to yours I call you to schedule your appointment," the operator said in a recording-like voice. "Well, since we're already on the phone and you see my MRI order, can we set a date? Yes. Ten days from now? I can work with that!"

The staff executed the MRI with skill and efficiency. Four days later I'd not heard anything, so again I took the initiative. Calling the office of my primary care physician, they helpfully read me the MRI report. I honestly didn't understand most of the medical jargon, but the word "tear" caught my attention. When I inquired on next steps, the physician and his squared-away nurse went ahead and ordered the Ortho consult based on the MRI report. Ok, this is a good response. Not sure if that would have happened if I hadn't called, but we were moving things along so I was happy... Or so I thought.

Golden Rule: Prepare to Wait

The order for Ortho was in and I decided to again take the initiative and attempt to expedite the scheduling of my appointment by calling. I heard the familiar script form the operator, "Sir, here is the process. I will call you in 2-3 weeks to schedule the appointment that will be in 2-3 months." So I have a painful tear in my knee and am expected to just sit tight for a few months to get a consult with an orthopedic doctor?

This timing of the system has to be the biggest learning of all. If I had a realistic expectation of timing going in, I could be better prepared to manage through the process, but this news didn't sit well. I thought about other veterans in more pain than me... in more dire need. If someone managed my expectations better at the onset, I would better have my head on straight.

My hope is that reading this will remind and motivate you to use VA health care, but also prepare you for the bureaucracy and the long times it may take to receive it.

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