I don’t remember the accident that dark Sunday night in June when I slammed into a black bull on U.S. Highway 77 just north of Lott. My memory kicks in when my alter ego and I were outside of my totaled car, which had jumped a ditch and climbed up half a hill, and people were asking if I was OK.
No, I had been unconscious. I didn’t know where I was. My alter ego, Faithful Old George, the guy hanging on to his belief in Veterans Affairs health care like a kid refusing to forsake the Easter Bunny, had suffered a few shocks from national and local VA scandals, but his heart still beat on the side of that hill. He figured he and the VA system would see me through this near-fatal accident.
The emergency medical technician talking to me said I had better go to the hospital, even though it didn’t appear anything was broken. I still had that oozing knot on my forehead and my shirt could have passed for a matador’s red cape. Faithful Old George asked to be taken to the Veterans Affairs hospital, the Olin E. Teague facility, in Temple. But when the EMT folks called, the VA emergency room waved me off (so the EMT said), saying that my having been unconscious made me problematic for them. Instead, the ambulance folks took me to Baylor Scott & White Medical Center/Hillcrest. It was a jolt, but Faithful Old George had absorbed a bunch of shocks by then.
At the national level, the shock of the 2014 patient wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA hospital just about did him in on its own. Some 40 veterans died waiting for appointments that never came while hospital management instructed clerks to manipulate appointments and wait times to make sure the big shots got their bonuses. He thought how fortunate he was to be in Central Texas, and not Phoenix, where all those crooked people were. And then the good folks in Central Texas got caught doing the same thing when more than one whistleblower blew local bureaucrats’ cover.
In fact, just about every national scandal found its counterpart in Central Texas. The 2012 VA Pittsburgh Legionnaire’s disease deaths and coverup? Waco’s VA campus had its own legionella bacteria contamination but didn’t tell the public or employees till the news media found out. Nobody died, but nobody learned anything about coming clean, either. VA whistleblower retaliation? Look no further than Waco’s Center of Excellence and psychologist David Tharp, a decorated combat veteran and whistleblower, who reported time and attendance fraud and preferential treatment. After his report, management ditched his bonuses and reassigned him to meaningless work. “At least in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I knew who my enemy was,” Tharp said in a Nov. 3, 2015, Austin American-Statesman story.
The backlog of disability claims? The Waco VA Regional Office took first place in inefficiency by taking last place in application processing. Poor care at nursing homes? The VA nursing home in Temple got only one star, the lowest rating, of five. Corruption? The Temple VA’s motor pool set the standard there. Tools disappeared. Supervisors used veterans sent to them for occupational rehab to mow their lawns and wash their cars, among other abuses. Dishonest management? How about, as McLennan County Veterans Service Officer Steve Hernandez pointed out in his April 21, 2018, opinion piece in the Waco Tribune-Herald, the VA’s claiming they would never move the Post-Traumatic Residential Rehabilitation Program from Waco — and a couple of years later saying otherwise? Many believe the move is a prelude to shuttering the Waco VA campus someday.
With all those jolts, Faithful Old George was close to being on life support even before colliding with the bull. The accident, indirectly, finally produced one casualty: The VA administered the final shock to him when it sent a letter declaring that his emergency visit to a non-VA ER, after being turned away by the Temple VA hospital, was unauthorized and not covered.
Faithful Old George, right along with the Easter Bunny, is gone. Wherever he is, I suspect he has plenty of company. Maybe privatization really is the way to go.