Veterans rally at VA medical center to protest lack of progress in improving care

Ricky Barnes, center, a 54-year-old medically disabled and retired U.S. Air Force veteran founded EnvincibleVets and organized a rally Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, to protest slow and substandard care from the Phoenix VA Medical Center. He is joined by Alison Culver. (Photo by April Morganroth/Cronkite News)

Veterans rallied on Monday outside the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix to protest what they say is a lack of progress in improving care at the hospital despite a visit from President Barack Obama in March.

“What today the protest is about, is still to reiterate the issues that still remain in the [Phoenix] VA system,” said Ricky Barnes, 54, a medically disabled and retired U.S. Air Force veteran who is the founder of EnvincibleVets. Barnes said those issues range from abuse, retaliation against veterans and lower level employees, he also said, “they are still denying appointments and they are still delaying appointments; those things never left the VA system.”

The suicide rate for veterans is significantly higher than the general population, according to studies. One study by Department of Veterans Affairs put the rate as high as 18-22 per day, though the study cautioned that the number is difficult to pull from available data. Patient care quality and timeliness of appointments became an issue at the Phoenix medical center early 2012 and has garnered national headlines. Obama toured the facility in March, meeting with patients and officials.

Wallace J. Brown Sr. waves his cane at honking cars passing by in support of a veterans rally at the Phoenix VA Medical Center on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015.  He said he had hoped President Obama's visit back in March would have led to improvements in patient care. (Photo by April Morganroth/Cronkite News)

Wallace J. Brown Sr. waves his cane at honking cars passing by in support of a veterans rally at the Phoenix VA Medical Center on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. (Photo by April Morganroth/Cronkite News)

“Today’s teachable moment is human empathy,” said Joan Lewis, secretary for State Sen. Kelli Ward R-Lake Havasu City, “I support anyone that will help a veteran, and I am tired of veterans being ignored.” Lewis said she has worked in the healthcare system for almost 30 years and she said she feels ashamed by the treatment from the Phoenix VA Center. Joel Lewis, her brother and a U.S. Army disabled veteran, was with her at the rally. Her father is also retired U.S. Army veteran. She said it is time for the Phoenix VA Center to improve its care and communication to patients.

In an email statement, Phoenix VA Health Care System spokeswoman Jean M. Schaefer said, “Our nation’s Veterans served to protect our rights. To this, we respect the right of people or organizations to express their opinion. Phoenix VA Health Care System works diligently to create a collaborative, problem-solving environment that is conducive to the needs of our patients. We encourage anyone with a specific concern to contact our team of Patient Advocates who work as liaisons for the Director’s Office.”

One sentiment stated by nearly all of the protesters is that the center needs to hire more veterans because “veterans help veterans, it’s that simple,” said Romee Trofort, patient advocate at the Phoenix VA hospital.

A U.S. Army veteran herself, Trofort said she also had a difficult time navigating operating procedures for needed specialists and appointments; that it wasn’t until she started working at the hospital did she finally start understanding it more. Trofort said that the current issues comes down to miscommunication, staffing and changes in the healthcare system.

“We veterans, we have problems,” said Wallace J. Brown Sr., a retired Army veteran who was wounded in Vietnam. “Right now the healthcare is bad, real bad.”

He echoed Trofort’s sentiment.

“They don’t have the same feelings or compassion that I believe veterans would have.” Brown said.

While most will be watching parades on Wednesday in celebration of Veteran’s Day, Barnes said that they will be holding another protest in the same location outside of the medical center to continue to highlight the plight of veterans and their access to healthcare.