NEW PORT RICHEY — Hobbled by age and suffering the effects of war, even from a generation ago, the veterans crowded into City Hall on Thursday to share their war stories about Veterans Affairs hospitals and health clinics.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, called the town hall meeting, saying he wanted hear "the good, the bad and ugly" about VA health services in Tampa Bay as he and other lawmakers consider legislation to improve the VA's facilities and reduce wait times.
Mostly he heard the ugly, and plenty of it, during the three-hour session. About 75 vets showed up, a couple in wheelchairs, some with canes, many with wisps of gray poking out from ball caps.
One by one, they clutched a microphone to talk about long wait times, difficulty in making appointments at clinics and hospitals, and denials of coverage. Bilirakis, resembling a roving talk show host, shuttled from one side of the room to the other, nodding and occasionally interjecting questions.
The vice chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Bilirakis was part of last month's congressional hearings, called amid allegations that dozens of veterans died while waiting to receive medical attention.
He called the stories "reprehensible" and said he's working with others in the House to introduce legislation to reduce wait times. Bilirakis favors no more than two weeks, instead of the current three-month VA waiting policy. He also wants to give veterans an option to go outside the VA for quicker treatment.
Iraq war veteran Chris Mizell of New Port Richey was among the younger attendees.
The 31-year-old former Marine said it can take months to get signed up for a weekly regimen of physical therapy to treat his achy shoulders and the tingling in his hands and wrists. If you miss an appointment, he said, "That's it, you have to wait months to get the next appointment."
Another vet, Vincent Chisholm, 54, of Tarpon Springs said he's been trying for years to get treatment for a wrist injury suffered during the first of two stints in the Army in late 1970s and early 1980s.
"Why do we have to fight so hard to get benefits?" said Chisholm, who uses a wheelchair and suffers from diabetes. "It's like they'd rather see you dead."
Kurtis Marsh, 49, who served in the Marine Corps and Florida National Guard, said he's been dealing with chronic back and hip pain for two years. He asked to see a pain specialist, but months later was referred to a psychiatrist who recommended group therapy instead. "I explained I'm looking for a medical doctor," he said, adding that the VA staffers didn't seem to listen.
Marsh at least was able to eventually see someone. Many stories sounded more like that of Peter Spatz of New Port Richey.
The 73-year-old Navy veteran said he needed an MRI on his left elbow and treatment for a lingering sore on his left ankle.
Spatz was treated in April and scheduled to return a month later for a followup exam. The doctor told him, "it was of the utmost importance" to make his return appointment.
But a few days before the appointment, a staffer at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa called to reschedule for mid June. As that date approached, the hospital called back to reschedule again.
"I said forget it," Spatz recalled, pulling up his pants leg to show the ankle sore still hasn't healed.
"This has been bothering me for six months now," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.