- Associated Press - Friday, June 27, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s veterans affairs secretary told state lawmakers Friday that he’s heard complaints for years about problems with veterans having trouble getting treatment in the federal VA hospitals and clinics around the state.

David LaCerte said the state veterans department reported the complaints to the federal VA and its inspector general, but never saw any substantive response.

“It seems as though we’ve come to a point in this country where those who have given the most are actually treated with the least amount of respect, and there’s something wrong with that,” said Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City.

The comments came at a meeting of the House Special Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs, which was reviewing allegations that veterans in Louisiana, just like others around the nation, have faced long waits for health care services.

Louisiana has three VA medical centers that provide inpatient care, in Alexandria, New Orleans and Shreveport, along with a dozen outpatient clinics around the state, for its more than 312,000 military veterans.

Federal data released earlier this month showed the average wait for a new patient to get an appointment at one of Louisiana’s three major VA medical centers runs anywhere from 30 to 55 days. The average wait times were not the nation’s worst for new patients, but they exceeded the now-abandoned goal of 14 days set by the VA.

LaCerte said 37 veterans died while lingering on a waiting list for care at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport.

“We have a system today that has forced veterans to quit or to give up,” said Douglas Ducote, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2004 and founded a group called Veterans United for Justice.

VA officials refused to attend the state legislative meeting. At LaCerte’s urging, the committee agreed to seek to issue a subpoena to the federal veterans affairs officials, to try to compel their attendance at a future hearing.

“VA has shown an unwillingness to honestly address the problems that’s plaguing our veterans and their health care system today,” said LaCerte.

Rep. Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans, chairman of the committee, said the logistics of how to send the subpoena remained to be worked out. He acknowledged it wasn’t certain to get anyone from the VA to testify.

A call to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs wasn’t immediately returned Friday.

The committee heard from veterans who described lengthy waits to book appointments, to get prescriptions filled and to see doctors. They talked of health conditions worsened because of delays and fellow veterans who contemplated suicide because of an inability to get treatment.

“If you’re looking for care in this state, you’re not getting it. You’re getting the runaround,” said Richard O’Brien, a Baton Rouge veteran with the Military Order of the Purple Heart of Louisiana.

Lawmakers pushed LaCerte to offer ideas for ways the state could improve health care for its veterans. But LaCerte said the fix must come from federal officials because the VA is charged with veterans’ primary care. He urged pressure on federal officials.