ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Broken spines, traumatic brain injuries, cancer – those are just a few of the afflictions a crowd of veterans at a public forum accused the Albuquerque Veteran’s Affairs medical center of ignoring amid a scandal in which the VA allegedly forced patients to wait months for an appointment and tried to cover it up.
About 200 veterans and other community members packed a Central New Mexico Community College auditorium Saturday afternoon to tell war stories, not from abroad, but from walking through the front doors of the VA medical center in Albuquerque in search of care.
“It’s a cattle call over there … veterans wait all day to see to someone,” said Chris Chaisson, who was wounded in Iraq. “Nothing ever changes; we just get broken promises from politicians.”
One woman, hobbling to her seat, said an appointment for an injured hip was scheduled for five months from now; a man said he went through withdrawals when his morphine prescription wasn’t filled fast enough; another woman said her father’s appendix ruptured while he waited eight hours for surgery.
Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called the forum after learning that the Albuquerque VA had placed patients on a “phantom” waiting list, listened to story after story accusing the VA of ineptitude.
The Albuquerque VA has joined a growing list of hospitals across the nation allegedly involved in the scandal, which erupted when treatment delays were discovered at the Phoenix VA hospital.
“I am amazed by the lack of dignity and respect. It was really tragic to listen to; it was a shocking four hours. I think it’s criminal,” Lujan Grisham said after the forum at Smith Brasher Hall. “We need immediate short-term fixes … as well as long-term investments.”
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., listens as veteran and former Albuquerque VA employee Joseph Guadagnoli talks about his experiences as an employee. He retired two years ago. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)
Lujan Grisham said she is going to follow up with everyone who was there and may hold future meetings.
VA secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in late May in the midst of the controversy.
In Albuquerque, the VA medical center admitted on May 30 putting up to 3,000 patients on a phantom panel, making it look as if patients had been assigned a doctor when they hadn’t. They had been assigned to a supervisor, who doesn’t see patients, between summer 2012 and January of this year, when VA officials say the practice stopped.
Employees complained last fall, which is when an internal investigation was launched.
The rest of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have all spoken out about the accusations and had called for Shinseki’s resignation. A representative from New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall’s office was also present Saturday.
A few audience members said they had some positive experiences with the hospital.
“It’s been up and down; right now, it’s sort of down,” said Regina Dandridge, who waited three months for an appointment to fix two missing teeth. “I’ve been waiting and waiting, but they finally gave me an appointment for the end of this month.”
Vietnam veteran Joseph Guadagnoli, who worked for the local VA for about 17 years, said he retired in 2012 because he didn’t want to be part of the problems anymore.
He said doctors weren’t diligent in their care, falsified records about patient care and didn’t support a fellow employee when he was dealing with psychiatric issues.
“I felt like I couldn’t be a part of a system that literally put their own standards above those who were there to be cared for,” Guadagnoli said.