ZEPHYRHILLS — James Carroll said the Department of Veterans Affairs may finally be keeping a promise it makes to every veteran.
Officials at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa have reached out to Carroll, a veteran dying of leukemia, and said they will do all they can to ensure Carroll gets the care he needs.
In a front-page story in Thursday's St. Petersburg Times, Carroll and his sister said Haley had repeatedly refused to admit the Air Force veteran, even though he is eligible for complete, free care.
They said they were told Haley was simply too crowded.
All that changed on Friday when the VA portrayed the situation as a misunderstanding. Haley's chief of staff, Carroll said, called and said he would personally oversee Carroll's treatment.
In addition, a Haley social worker told Carroll's sister, Nancy McEndree, that the VA will pay all medical bills Carroll accumulated when forced to get treatment outside the VA.
Carroll has lost track of how much he owes but said it's in the thousands — mostly co-pays and deductibles for Medicare.
"I think they're doing the right thing now," said Carroll, who was pleased but wary. "So far, all we've heard is words."
It appears the VA's turnaround may have been prodded by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who saw the newspaper story and immediately e-mailed Haley chief of staff, Dr. Edward Cutolo, to fix the problem.
"He got my e-mail at 6:45 in the morning before my coffee had a chance to brew," Brown-Waite said.
Brown-Waite said she didn't think the episode pointed to any systemic problem at Haley and is happy that the hospital is getting the word out to employees about appropriate responses when veterans call for help.
"In a perfect world, I wouldn't have had to get involved," Brown-Waite said.
A Haley spokeswoman has said the facility, one of the busiest in the nation, is trying to reduce the times that it is forced to send patients to other non-VA hospitals.
John Pickens, a VA regional spokesman, said he thought Carroll's case was an aberration and not a sign of a wider problem at Haley.
"If that happened, it's not something that typically happens," said Pickens. "We regret it. It's not a perfect system. The good thing about the VA is that we were able to get it fixed."
Pickens urged veterans to call a patient advocate if they are having difficulties with the VA. (At Haley, that number is (813) 978-5856, and at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg it's (727) 398-9524.)
In a statement, Cutolo said the VA would examine whether it owes Carroll a pension based on Agent Orange exposure.
The VA has refused to provide him such a pension.
Agent Orange, widely known for its use in Vietnam, was also sprayed in Korea in the late 1960s, a time when Carroll served there.
The VA said it isn't making any promises, but if Carroll is granted such a benefit, his pension could nearly double from its current $1,500.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5306.