NEW PORT RICHEY — Many veterans shared their problems with getting medical care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs during a town hall Thursday staged by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis.
Some 60 people appeared for the event at New Port Richey City Hall, where Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, suggested consolidating five Pasco VA clinics into a single, larger facility here.
Echoing concerns heard elsewhere in the country, the local veterans said VA health care is good but waiting in line for it can be frustrating.
Some suggested VA administrators delay approving care requests in hopes the veterans will die first.
One man said a cholesterol-lowering drug he had taken for 10 years left him with debilitating muscle pain. VA doctors ignored the warning signs and continued him on the medication for many more years.
He only found out much later about warning labels put on the drug after its first few years on the market, the man said.
Another speaker said he never had problems at VA Outpatient Clinic New Port Richey, but the agency’s facilities in Tampa were another matter entirely.
After constant rescheduling of his appointment in Tampa, he tried contacting patient advocates for help, the man said. He got a recorded message on one phone line that nobody was available to take his call, but had no option to leave a message. Another phone line rang 40 times, but nobody answered.
In introductory remarks, Bilirakis said acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson “must work diligently to regain the trust and sacred bond we have in caring for our nation’s heroes.”
The money spent by the VA must “benefit our heroes, not bureaucrats,” Bilirakis said. “As stewards of taxpayer funds, transparency and accountability must be among the VA’s priorities. That’s not the case now, in my opinion.”
Bilirakis, vice chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, added, “The VA must understand that we will not stand by with idle threats.”
Congress is considering legislation to empower the VA secretary to demote or fire employees on the basis of performance, Bilirakis said.
Bilirakis also said military members need more preparation for return to civilian life. A soldier might get six months of combat training, but only five days before leaving active duty, he said.
Bilirakis would like to copy a San Diego program that converts former motels or hotels into temporary housing for homeless veterans.