WASHINGTON -- Army veteran Dennis Magnasco spent two days trying to get a doctor's appointment at his VA clinic in Bedford, Massachusetts, but he couldn't get through to anyone on the phone. So he and his boss, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), came up with another idea: filming.
They set up a camera, put the call on speakerphone and dialed in again. For nearly five straight minutes, their video shows Magnasco being swept up in a loop of automated voices telling him to press different numbers, which sent him to other automated voices, which sent him back to the beginning of the original recording. Over. And over. And over again.
Moulton, an Iraq War veteran himself who's introduced several bills aimed at fixing problems at VA, wanted to put a human face to the widespread problem vets have in accessing care. He posted their video on his Facebook page last week. It went viral.
More than 2.1 million people read Moulton's post and watched the video. More than 20,000 people shared it. Within a few days, the VA fixed the phone system at its Bedford facility and Magnasco was able to make an appointment. And Moulton suddenly had a dozen new co-sponsors on his bill, the Faster Care for Veterans Act, which would make it easier for vets to schedule their own VA appointments. He's up to 19 co-sponsors, both Democratic and Republican.
"We had a good number of co-sponsors before, but several of my colleagues said they heard from constituents about the video who encouraged them to get on the bill," Moulton told The Huffington Post on Friday. "We're just delighted."
His bill would require VA to run an 18-month pilot program that lets veterans in certain networks use an app on their phone to schedule or cancel VA appointments themselves. If it sounds simple enough, that's because it is: these apps already exist in the private sector and have been successful. Moulton said it makes way more sense for VA to adopt this technology than to do what he discovered the agency was preparing to do.
"They were planning to spend $623 million developing their own app," said Moulton. "This is available today. God knows how long it would take them to spend that."
VA has fallen short with its technology systems for years. A computer system glitch has been denying health care to tens of thousands of combat vets, who are entitled to free health care. A document leaked to HuffPost in July revealed that nearly one-third of 847,000 veterans with pending applications for health care had already died. More recently, a February report by the VA's Office of Inspector General found that a VA suicide hotline sent callers to voicemail and did not return some calls.
Moulton said he hasn't been able to get an answer from VA on why they would spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing an app to let vets schedule their doctors' appointments when these kinds of apps already exist. He said it seems like VA just prefers to have its own proprietary systems.
"They gave a variety of silly excuses," he said. "None of it makes sense."
A VA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Moulton's legislation may be one of the few bipartisan bills that moves this year in an otherwise gridlocked Congress. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who is a member of GOP leadership, is an original co-sponsor of the legislation. The bill is on track for a hearing in a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee soon.
Moulton and Magnasco both emphasized that despite problems they've faced in getting VA appointments, once they're in, the care is excellent. To that point, Moulton says he still gets his health care at VA, even as a member of Congress.
Asked how he didn't smash his phone into tiny bits during the two days that he couldn't get anyone to answer at VA, Magnasco said it was "aggravating" but he tried to stay focused on the bigger picture.
"I was thinking about all the other vets dealing with the same issue," he said.