HARLINGEN, March 25 - As time goes by, it becomes more apparent that more and better health services are needed to address the many health ailments of Rio Grande Valley veterans.
If a Valley veteran becomes sick during the week and he or she goes and seeks care at the local VA clinic as a walk-in, the veteran will not be seen. A veteran can sit in the lobby all day in hopes of seeing a doctor. Chances are that the VA staff will tell him to go the hospital if he really needs to see a doctor. The local contract hospitals will not cover the veteran’s medical bills unless the veteran has a medical emergency.
I mention this because Valley veterans are losing patience and in a sense getting desperate because when it comes to securing a VA hospital for the region, it has so far only been speeches and promises. San Antonio can have a fully-fledged VA hospital but the Valley, which is just as big, cannot.
Veterans have not seen this promised hospital and it appears that the issue has become dormant. There are rumors that the Veterans Alliance is working to raise funds to make a Washington, D.C., trip to lobby at the national level. This will be about the fourth or fifth trip. Politics is just around the corner and most if not all local politicians are saying that they support a VA hospital. But that is as far as they go.
Imagine, all these years Valley veterans have been advocating for a hospital and still no progress. The local congressional delegation, including our two U.S. senators, has been there for veterans, but has not succeeded. Very little progress has been made.
In March 2008, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison brought Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Dr. James Peake to tour the new expanded South Texas VA Health Center in Harlingen. Peake said he was committed to seeking better services for the veterans in the region. Congressman Henry Cuellar was present at that meeting. A new VA clinic was discussed and veterans for the first time heard of the “second phase” of construction toward a possible VA hospital. The “first phase” had been initiated in December and would be completed in the near future. On November of 2010, the local congressional delegation announced that in early January 2011, the “first phase” would be completed with the grand opening of the new Outpatient Surgical Center in Harlingen.
Under Secretary of the Veterans Health Administration Dr. Robert Petzel attended the ribbon cutting ceremonies, officially opening the new center in February 2011. In June of 2011, Congressman Cuellar submitted legislation for the expansion of the new center to a Full Medical Service Center. His bill was attached to the House Bill on Military and Veterans Construction and other Related Agencies Appropriations. That bill passed and became law this past December.
Now, four years later since Secretary Peake’s visit and with a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, in place, the “second phase” could possibly be funded by the Strategic Capital Investment Plan as proposed by Congressman Cuellar. It could, but will it take four, ten or 20 more years? That is, if it is approved.
Applying for Medical Care
Older veterans that were in military service during the Vietnam War era should apply for medical care through the Veterans Affairs. All veterans should apply even though it has been a long time since their service. In our service area, out of the estimated 112,000 veterans only 32,000 have applied. There are eight categories in which veterans are allowed to participate. Category seven and eighth require a co-pay. But if the veteran thinks his problems were service connected than he will be eligible for care for that ailment. Service connected also qualifies him for disability income.
As the years have passed, Agent Orange has been found to cause a lot of health problems to those ex-servicemen that served in areas where it was spread. The recognized diseases or ailments are:
Amyloidosis - a rare disease caused when an abnormal protein, amyloid, enters tissues or organs
Chronic B-cell Leukemias - a type of cancer which affects white blood cells
Chloracne (or similar acneform disease) - a skin condition that occurs soon after exposure to chemicals and looks like common forms of acne seen in teenagers. Under VA's rating regulations, chloracne (or other acneform disease similar to chloracne) must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of exposure to herbicides.
Diabetes Mellitus Type 2 - a disease characterized by high blood sugar levels resulting from the body’s inability to respond properly to the hormone insulin
Hodgkin’s Disease - a malignant lymphoma (cancer) characterized by progressive enlargement of the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen, and by progressive anemia
Ischemic Heart Disease - a disease characterized by a reduced supply of blood to the heart, that leads to chest pain
Multiple Myeloma - a cancer of plasma cells, a type of white blood cell in bone marrow
Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma a group of cancers that affect the lymph glands and other lymphatic tissue
Parkinson’s Disease - a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects muscle movement
Acute and Subacute Peripheral Neuropathy - a nervous system condition that causes numbness, tingling, and motor weakness. Under VA's rating regulations, it must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of exposure to herbicides and resolve within two years after the date it began.
Porphyria Cutanea Tarda - a disorder characterized by liver dysfunction and by thinning and blistering of the skin in sun-exposed areas. Under VA's rating regulations, it must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of exposure to herbicides.
Prostate Cancer - a cancer of the prostate; one of the most common cancers among men
Respiratory Cancers (includes lung cancer) - cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea, and bronchus
Soft Tissue Sarcomas (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or mesothelioma) - a group of different types of cancers in body tissues such as muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels, and connective tissues.
These are what are called “presumptive diseases” associated with exposure to Agent Orange. Most veterans think Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the only service connected disease that qualifies for veterans’ compensation and health benefits. Not so, there are many others. Veterans should contact their Veterans Service Officer.
I have heard many veterans say that they are being treated for Sciatica and they may need surgery. Sciatica is not service connected unless it can be associated as derivative from peripheral neuropathy. Along this line, sometimes medical care providers are quick to diagnose sciatica that requires knee or hip surgery. This is an expensive operation and is not 100 percent successful.
Veterans with pain to the knees, hips, buttocks and other joints should ask their medical provider if there are other causes for their pain. Peripheral neuropathy causes pain and limitation of use of these areas. Also, there is what is called “pirisformis muscle” syndrome. If this muscle becomes inflamed it will cause a lot of pain when you sit down and try to get up. Loss of use of the buttocks can be a service connected injury and qualifies the veteran for disability compensation.
There will be U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee meeting on March 27, 2012. Here are the details:
March 27: Full Committee Hearing – From the Ground Up: Assessing Ongoing Delays in VA Major Construction. Start time: 10:30 a.m. Address: 334 Cannon House Office Building Washington D.C.
This hearing is important for veterans to listen to and find out where the VA is doing major construction. Maybe, just maybe the expansion of Surgical Center in Harlingen will be mentioned. Tune in, it’s free. The proceeding can be viewed by accessing the Committee’s web page. The hearing can also be watched live at www.veterans.affairs.gov.
Finally, I urge all veterans who read this column to take advantage of all veterans benefits afforded you by our Government for your services to Country. Do not look at it as a federal handout, you are entitled to them and you deserve them. Those benefits are there for your benefit, BUT, you must apply for them. The Government is not going to come and look for you. Take that initiative and sign up at least for medical benefits.
Arturo 'Treto' Garza served as a Marine in the Vietnam War and is a former co-chair of the Veteran’s Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley. Garza’s Veteran's Voice column appears exclusively in the Guardian. Garza lives in Harlingen, Texas.