The VA desperately needs a combat medic, not a management guru

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As senators consider the nomination of the next secretary of veterans affairs, they should first reflect on the story of an Army veteran named Jason White.

White served our country in Afghanistan, where he was severely injured by an IED explosion. His spine was crushed, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury, but thanks to the skill and training of our nation's brave combat medics, he survived. Yet on his return to the home front, he battled the hidden wounds of war -- insomnia, depression and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was not alone. Four members of his unit killed themselves after they got home. And after struggling with his mental and physical wounds for five years, White decided to do the same. One day in 2016, he came home, put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.

He would be dead today if his gun had not jammed.

His wife rushed him to the local Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Colorado Springs for emergency psychological intervention. Incredibly, she was told that her husband would have to wait six months to see a therapist. As Jason White told the Gazette in Colorado Springs, "They knew I was suicidal, and still it was six months to talk to someone."

Fortunately, a few days later, White was told he could be referred to a private psychologist through the Veterans Choice Program that Congress established in 2014 after a series of scandals in which patients died while waiting for care at VA facilities. He began seeing Dr. Michael Sunich, and that treatment saved his life. "Without him, I probably wouldn't be here," White told the paper.

But Sunich kept a secret from White. He was treating White for free, because the company VA picked to manage the Veterans Choice Program, Health Net Federal Services, failed to pay his claims. Others were not as lucky as White. A November 2017 VA inspector general report found that in Colorado Springs, "staff did not take timely action on consults, did not provide timely care in a response to consults, underreported wait times and inappropriately closed consults" for veterans with for post-traumatic stress disorder. The inspector general further found that "veterans in an estimated 210 consults were inappropriately denied an opportunity to receive care through VHA's Choice Program."
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