Team Effort

As VA hospitals struggle to meet rising demands, the Red Sox Foundation and Mass General have found a way to shore up care for local vets.

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |

complain about is a capital-B bureaucracy of endless paperwork and automated messages. Appointments are hard to get, especially for younger vets, and they’re brief, she says.

Many of Matthews’s vets expect more of hospitals associated with Harvard, Boston University, and Tufts. And in fact Massachusetts’ VA facilities are, in many respects, first-rate. Their care outperforms that of other VA hospitals nationally, internal studies show; and VA Boston beats 96 percent of all hospitals that serve poor and aging patients, according to HealthInsight, a nonprofit group that analyzes Medicare and Medicaid statistics. VA Boston’s psychiatrists are nationally recognized. In 2007, for instance, Dr. Jonathan Shay won a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, for his work tracing PTSD to ancient cultures.

Yet stellar care means nothing if you can’t get access to it. Although the VA says it sees almost all its patients within 14 days of a call for an appointment, vets complain about excessive wait times: One in four veterans waits at least 30 days to see a doctor in the system, the most recent Office of Inspector General report showed. One highly regarded mental health professional working at the VA Medical Center in Bedford says the waitlist for therapy sessions is about five months. And a psychiatrist in Greater Boston says he recently left the VA in part because his hourlong sessions kept getting squeezed down to shorter increments, and because he was told to meet "productivity guidelines" in terms of number of patients seen. "Basically…[the expectation is] for the psychiatrist’s door to open and close every 15 minutes," he says.

The system is swamped because more Iraq and Afghanistan vets are seeking out treatment than federal policymakers projected, veterans groups say. Forty-six percent of returning troops have enrolled in VA care nationwide, already exceeding policymakers’ estimates. New England’s VA hospitals are treating 22,000, and that’s only four percent of the region’s overall patient load.

The costs have outstripped the VA’s resources. The agency had to request $1 billion in emergency funding to cover unexpected needs in 2005, and another $2 billion the next year. By 2008, Congress was asking for $3 billion more in emergency funding to cope with rising demand. The VA’s struggles to meet needs led veterans to file a class-action lawsuit. The plaintiffs didn’t want money; they wanted the VA to acknowledge its shortcomings. The federal judge who heard the case decided the problems were so large they required legislation, not adjudication.

Under President Obama, the VA’s budget has grown by 27 percent – and it has asked Congress for $125 billion for next year – but the increase doesn’t make up for past lags. "We’re still behind the curve on staffing," says the mental health professional in Bedford.

Access is what the Red Sox’s Werner wanted to offer – otherwise, what a waste for suffering vets to go untreated in a city with some of the finest healthcare in the world.

ONE NIGHT TWO YEARS AGO, Gary Smith awoke to the sound of his back door

  • Nancy

    This is a highly misleading article. I am also a Vet and have been treated better @ the VA than anywhere else. What I really see in your article is that VETs should be seen @ MGH at taxpayers’ expense. Care at a non-VA hosp is going to be higher. Of course if VA paid for it, the private hospitals wouldn’t be in so much red-ink!

  • Bryan

    This article is the most irresponsible thing I have read in some time. The author has clearly not read recent data of the VA hospital nor has he chosen to include anything regarding positive care at the facilities. The VA is an exemplary hospital system and access to care is not obstucted as he chooses to state in his attempt to illicit a tear or anger. Mr. Kix, this is not your best day.

  • mckenzie

    Mr. Kix, you should be ashamed. Is there a reason no interviews were completed with more veterans or VA employees? Perhaps a deadline was the reason for this poorly researched article.

  • M

    Mr Kix article doesn’t refer to an independent survey where VA scored tops in patient care based on surveying actual veteran patients or recent articles in WSJ that oppose some of the points he selects to portray. Personally I am not a veteran and receive care at MGH another of Boston’s fine institutions. I waited 1.5 YEARS to get assigned a primary care physician within that system. There can be long waits in healthcare no matter which hospital but the author omits these facts.

  • Alex

    i can only assume that Mr. Kix never served a purpose greater than his own self-indulgent needs. as a vet, i have given so much to this country, my father did too, as well as my grandfather. to read such slanted, half-truths about the only organization established to help those that served is heart breaking. i have not always received quick appts. or been treated like a king while at the VA but i know that the soul of that oragnization deeply cares about me and is honored to assist me with my medical needs.

    if one of my recently returned brothers (or sisters) reads this article and decides the VA can’t or won’t help them… if he/she does the unthinkable becuase they feel the one place that is meant to help – won’t… their death will be on your conscious. you owe us veteran an apology.

  • Roger

    This article hit the nail on the head. All the comments that the article was an in justice, are management for the VA in West Roxbury.

  • Cindy

    Where did you get your journalism degree, online? Most people, even the enquirer, check things out before they print them. Sounds like you had a beef with someone at the VA and are making up lies to suit yourself. I have several relatives that have been seen their and all of them have nothing but praise. Did you let the readers know that the IG report was from 2007, didn’t think so. The VA is a nice, caring place to be but you wouldn’t know that because you don’t know how to research, you just take one persons word for it. You are a disgrace to journalism.

  • Cindy

    Where did you get your journalism degree, online? Most people, even the enquirer, check things out before they print them. Sounds like you had a beef with someone at the VA and are making up lies to suit yourself. I have several relatives that have been seen their and all of them have nothing but praise. Did you let the readers know that the IG report was from 2007, didn’t think so. The VA is a nice, caring place to be but you wouldn’t know that because you don’t know how to research, you just take one persons word for it. You are a disgrace to journalism.

  • Cindy

    Where did you get your journalism degree, online? Most people, even the enquirer, check things out before they print them. Sounds like you had a beef with someone at the VA and are making up lies to suit yourself. I have several relatives that have been seen their and all of them have nothing but praise. Did you let the readers know that the IG report was from 2007, didn’t think so. The VA is a nice, caring place to be but you wouldn’t know that because you don’t know how to research, you just take one persons word for it. You are a disgrace to journalism.

  • Cindy

    Where did you get your journalism degree, online? Most people, even the enquirer, check things out before they print them. Sounds like you had a beef with someone at the VA and are making up lies to suit yourself. I have several relatives that have been seen their and all of them have nothing but praise. Did you let the readers know that the IG report was from 2007, didn’t think so. The VA is a nice, caring place to be but you wouldn’t know that because you don’t know how to research, you just take one persons word for it. You are a disgrace to journalism.

  • Cindy

    Where did you get your journalism degree, online? Most people, even the enquirer, check things out before they print them. Sounds like you had a beef with someone at the VA and are making up lies to suit yourself. I have several relatives that have been seen their and all of them have nothing but praise. Did you let the readers know that the IG report was from 2007, didn’t think so. The VA is a nice, caring place to be but you wouldn’t know that because you don’t know how to research, you just take one persons word for it. You are a disgrace to journalism.

  • Cindy

    Where did you get your journalism degree, online? Most people, even the enquirer, check things out before they print them. Sounds like you had a beef with someone at the VA and are making up lies to suit yourself. I have several relatives that have been seen their and all of them have nothing but praise. Did you let the readers know that the IG report was from 2007, didn’t think so. The VA is a nice, caring place to be but you wouldn’t know that because you don’t know how to research, you just take one persons word for it. You are a disgrace to journalism.

  • Cindy

    Where did you get your journalism degree, online? Most people, even the enquirer, check things out before they print them. Sounds like you had a beef with someone at the VA and are making up lies to suit yourself. I have several relatives that have been seen their and all of them have nothing but praise. Did you let the readers know that the IG report was from 2007, didn’t think so. The VA is a nice, caring place to be but you wouldn’t know that because you don’t know how to research, you just take one persons word for it. You are a disgrace to journalism.

  • cecilia

    Ms. Matthews who is quoted in this article has helped 500 veterans who all hate the VA? Highly doubtful. And if in 10 years she has only helped 500 vets, perhaps she should be dismissed from her job which can be given to someone who is willing to work a little harder. There are plenty of unemployed vets who could use a good advocates job. Mr Kix, where did you get these sources? Must have been hard up.

  • robin

    When an article refers to Mass General readers understand the scope but when an article refers to THE VA – all facilties nationwide are included. An employee is cited not the thousands of others who beleive in the mission of caring for those who have borne the battle. In the article, Home Based care started after a visit to Walter Reed which IS NOT a VA facility – it is a military hospital. Was that point too difficult to research?? The VA has been a player in the Home Based program since the beginning. I except better reporting from Boston Magazine.

  • Mark

    It appears that you never took statistics since there is no evidence of the level of confidence, correlation of confidence,local population sample that you state in the adverse data in your article. I have had superior care at the VA at west Roxbury. They saved my life when I had viral encephalitis by correctly diagnosing it and treating it. I found the care superior to my private health care.I got several of my veteran friends to enroll and they said that their experience was superior as well. You shoud not pick and choose data or personnel for your stories without doing some sort of some blind randomized survey of veterans who use the local VAMC’s.

  • Mark

    It appears that you never took statistics since there is no evidence of the level of confidence, correlation of confidence,local population sample that you state in the adverse data in your article. I have had superior care at the VA at west Roxbury. They saved my life when I had viral encephalitis by correctly diagnosing it and treating it. I found the care superior to my private health care.I got several of my veteran friends to enroll and they said that their experience was superior as well. You shoud not pick and choose data or personnel for your stories without doing some sort of some blind randomized survey of veterans who use the local VAMC’s.

  • Mark

    It appears that you never took statistics since there is no evidence of the level of confidence, correlation of confidence,local population sample that you state in the adverse data in your article. I have had superior care at the VA at west Roxbury. They saved my life when I had viral encephalitis by correctly diagnosing it and treating it. I found the care superior to my private health care.I got several of my veteran friends to enroll and they said that their experience was superior as well. You shoud not pick and choose data or personnel for your stories without doing some sort of some blind randomized survey of veterans who use the local VAMC’s.

  • Mark

    It appears that you never took statistics since there is no evidence of the level of confidence, correlation of confidence,local population sample that you state in the adverse data in your article. I have had superior care at the VA at west Roxbury. They saved my life when I had viral encephalitis by correctly diagnosing it and treating it. I found the care superior to my private health care.I got several of my veteran friends to enroll and they said that their experience was superior as well. You shoud not pick and choose data or personnel for your stories without doing some sort of some blind randomized survey of veterans who use the local VAMC’s.

  • Adam

    MGH Department of Psychiatry is world renowned … for ethical conflicts of interest in research. Did Mr. Kix ask how much of the 6 million raised is going to support care of veterans versus lining the pockets of MGH research? Will MGH provide free care for veterans for life with complex PTSD, substance abuse, brain injury requiring prolonged hospital stays?

  • danielle

    What a poor piece of journalism. First of all the facts seem higly misconstrued – in 10 years of wokring at the VA an advocate helped 500 veterans, all of which did not think highly of the VA? What is the likelihood of that sample? And only 500 out of over 60,000 veteran’s in the system? This alone causes me to question the validity of the entire article. And the wait times? Really? I personally receive care at one of Boston’s major well respected hospital’s and rarely have I ever gotten to see my own PCP or specialist within 30 days. Overall, a truly disappointing article. I hope to see a more fair and better researched article regarding the VA published soon – our veteran’s deserve that.

  • William

    Talk about honestly, The VA in Boston makes up their own stats. The administration son’t us Vets, if you complain, they call their Police and now your a criminal. The VA us run by a bunch of sneakie non vet liars.

  • Jane

    I’m a combat veteran and employee. And they treat both like cattle. The student Dr’s don’t care about us Vet and the higher muckies are so out of touch, they believe their own stats that they create. I would take dog to the VA.

  • Dana

    I am glad to see so many people supporting the Boston VA. As to the negative comments about the VA making up stats and non of top leadership being vets, I’d like to say that the VA Boston Director is a Vietnam vet and one of the health systems specialists in the director’s office is a Desert Storm vet and many service chiefs are vets themselves. The proper stats that Boston Magazine failed to use are not made up by the VA. The VA is ranked high in patient satisfaction according to many independent reporting websites. The VA pulls their data from reliable, electronic reporting sources that would be very difficult for someone to manipulate.

  • jennifer

    In a world where medical practice is increasingly dictated by reimbursement contingencies, the VA is one of the last settings in which the quality of care and the needs of the patients override all else. This reporter’s motives are suspect; at best, the article reflects incompetence.

  • Tracy

    Is Boston Magazine trying to hurt veterans, or is this just a by-product of bad reporting? I hope that you realize what a disservice you potentially do to the veterans by misrepresenting the services available to them in the VA versus the private sector.

  • Roger

    I agree, just be reading the responses here, it’s the VA administration on TAXPAYERS TIME responding to thier guilt. You can read thru the lines the idiots from West Roxbury. And for the director that employyes call OZ (wizard of OZ) no one see or hears from him, except the respond to this factual article.

  • John

    Mr.Kix is very, very uninformed about the VA. SO many studies available out there for him to reference that show how well VA takes care of its Veterans. I’m a Veteran and use VA care almost monthly. Many years ago VA was not the best provider of care but so many wonderful things have changed in the VA over the past 20 years. Perhaps last time Mr.Kix visited VA and our Veterans were 20 years ago and is so removed from understanding what he is writing about. Mr. Kix must have an agenda other than help Veterans because I don’t see this article helping our Veterans in any way. Perhaps Mr.Kix can explain how his article could possibly help our Veterans. I’ve been using VA for over 10 years and the bottom line is I could not ask for a better team of professionals and very timely care. Much quicker care than any primary doctor or specialist I had before outside the VA. Whenever there are specialized services needed and not available at the VA I was sent to the best medical services available outside VA and all was covered by the VA. Owners of Boston Magazine really…

  • Lisa

    This article represents a brief snap shot of the VA and it does not capture the whole picture. I am a 10 year Army veteran who receives all my care from the VA Boston system while there are some issu

  • Richard

    Perhaps the author is simply trying to draw attention to himself and that is more important than unbiased reporting. I am a Veteran and get all of my health care from Boston VA. I have never received better care and have thought that if we have to have national healthcare (echh)then it should be run by the VA. The author needs to change careers!

  • Paul

    I’n bewildered by most of the responses to this article. The author’s thesis is that there are large gaps in the continuity of services received by veterans through the VA. He then describes several particular examples supporting his assertion, identifying and quoting vets at the center of these case studies, and reports how private entities have emerged to fill the void. Seems pretty straightforward and normative as short investigative pieces go. I can’t help but feel as do others -given the disproportionate and misdirected responses – that many of the posters are pursuing an agenda that has more to do with protecting the VA than it does with addressing the current crisis in services for vets. Also, I must add that I know Ms. Matthews, who has seen “only” 500 veterans over the past decade. What should have been made clear is that Ms. Matthews advocates for veterans as a patriotic calling, doing so on her own time and at her own expense. Typically, her veteran clients describe her as the help they have been in dire need of for years, and that it is only after her advocacy that they begin…

  • Paul

    receiving apprpriate attention and services from public sources. All of this leaves me with two distinct impressions, the first being veterans frustration and need, and that sort of consistent-to-the-poin-of-cliche denail and dismissivness at VA. This a long, sad, and well-documented story that seems to remain stuck in a condition of “same as it ever was”.

  • ANONYMOUS

    I came home from Iraq with what felt liek a broken bak. Went to Va who just gave me pills. After I went back I finally got an X-ray, they said I had a strained back. Five months later, I landed in the Cape Cod Emergency room, the Doc got me an MRI finally. He said the VA had been tretaing me for a condition that they did not even know I had. Thanks for the great article, good to know about the Red Sox program. Anyone who hates this article must work for the VA All my buddies have similatr VA stories

  • anonyomus

    my husband finnally got some help Thanks to Peggy Matthews.My husband has only gotten help Because of Peggy Matthews.One day Peggy Matthews came in to his life and because of her he was able to introduce and refer many of his Vet frinds to her and she is in the process of helping them also.
    We were trying to receive help from all kinds of people even rhe veteran in the Center of our town,to no avail.
    Now that we found Peggy , He has finally got some where and we could not have done this with out her help.She has not taken any money for the help and I know she has put in long hours working on this for him. We are very greatfull for the help she has given us.

  • anonyomus

    my husband finnally got some help Thanks to Peggy Matthews.My husband has only gotten help Because of Peggy Matthews.One day Peggy Matthews came in to his life and because of her he was able to introduce and refer many of his Vet frinds to her and she is in the process of helping them also.
    We were trying to receive help from all kinds of people even rhe veteran in the Center of our town,to no avail.
    Now that we found Peggy , He has finally got some where and we could not have done this with out her help.She has not taken any money for the help and I know she has put in long hours working on this for him. We are very greatfull for the help she has given us.

  • dee

    While it’s an unfortunate generalization that Ms. Matthews said, “All the vets hate the VA”–clearly most of the responses to Paul Kix’s article indicate otherwise!–it should be kept in
    mind that 100% of those contacting Ms. Matthews were discouraged and exasperated with their efforts to procure satisfactory medical care. In other words, she–an unpaid advocate–was their last resort! Also, if one reads carefully, the article says that the biggest complaint was around bureaucracy and paperwork, which many vets simple couldn’t wend their way through. Who hasn’t been brought to his or her knees when trying to navigate any administrative system? And, of course, the paper work is just the first of many steps toward medical treatment. Ms. Matthews is just good at it. So no wonder she’s sought after!

    And to Paul Kix’s credit he took on a giant: the VA. Even if his research might’ve benefitted from being more balanced with documented patient satisfaction input and more up-to-date data on, say, that Class Action suit, he has had the nerve to poke a a stick at what some consider a hornet’s nest. The…

  • dee

    While it’s an unfortunate generalization that Ms. Matthews said, “All the vets hate the VA”–clearly most of the responses to Paul Kix’s article indicate otherwise!–it should be kept in
    mind that 100% of those contacting Ms. Matthews were discouraged and exasperated with their efforts to procure satisfactory medical care. In other words, she–an unpaid advocate–was their last resort! Also, if one reads carefully, the article says that the biggest complaint was around bureaucracy and paperwork, which many vets simple couldn’t wend their way through. Who hasn’t been brought to his or her knees when trying to navigate any administrative system? And, of course, the paper work is just the first of many steps toward medical treatment. Ms. Matthews is just good at it. So no wonder she’s sought after!

    And to Paul Kix’s credit he took on a giant: the VA. Even if his research might’ve benefitted from being more balanced with documented patient satisfaction input and more up-to-date data on, say, that Class Action suit, he has had the nerve to poke a a stick at what some consider a hornet’s nest. The…

  • anonyomus

    I can tell you about my husband a Viet Nam Vet. He went to sike apt at the Va in Bedford for many years.I attented Meetings for Wifes of Viet Nam Vets.At one meeting we talked about the Meds they put them on. The ones my husband was on I found out taken togather cause Homicidal & Suicidal thoughts. The morning after my meeting he went to the sike apt and he was locked up and refused the meds the were going to give him. Thank God he did’nt take any of them because i think if he had he would never come home. Thank God their are people that do care and don’t want any thing in return.Like Peggy Matthews she has ben their for alot of Viet Nam Vets and now for the young men and woman coming home now.

  • garrett

    I have had similar issues with the VA myself…

  • garrett

    I have had similar issues with the VA myself…