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COLUMN: The VA Should Never Hang Up on Veterans Seeking Care: The VET Act would Ensure Every Veteran’s Access to Highest Level of Emergency Care

August 3, 2015
Weekly Column and Op-Ed
By Rep. Dan Newhouse

No one should ever hang up on a veteran seeking medical assistance. Every veteran deserves to be treated with respect and dignity—and especially with urgency in an emergency medical situation. Proper treatment for our veterans reflects the honor our nation accords for their service in uniform. Anything less is simply unacceptable, and even shameful.

Earlier this year, a 64-year-old Army veteran from Kennewick, Donald Siefken, arrived outside the Seattle Veterans Administration hospital emergency room with a broken and swollen foot. Mr. Siefken was unable to walk the ten-foot distance to the door, so he called the hospital to request assistance entering the emergency room. Instead of a rapid, helpful response to his urgent situation, Mr. Siefken received instructions to call 911 and a warning that he would have to pay for the cost of any emergency services. Astoundingly, this warning was followed by a dial tone – the VA hospital employee had hung up on him. At the height of frustration, Mr. Siefken called 911, and several Seattle firefighters arrived to help him into the emergency room to be treated.

Unfortunately, there are more heartbreaking stories of neglect. Last year at a VA medical center in New Mexico, Vietnam veteran Jim Garcia collapsed only a few hundred yards from the VA center’s emergency room. Instead of immediately transporting Mr. Garcia the short distance, the fire department was called. While waiting to be transferred, Mr. Garcia died.

Such horrific examples of negligent care demand a systemic response at the VA.

After sitting down with veterans across Central Washington to hear their concerns firsthand, I introduced legislation in Congress to improve VA policies and ensure access to VA emergency rooms. Last week, I introduced the Veterans Emergency Treatment (VET) Act to require that every enrolled veteran is afforded the highest level of emergency care at every emergency-capable medical facility under VA jurisdiction.

The VET Act would apply the statutory requirements of the Emergency Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) to emergency care furnished by the VA to enrolled veterans who arrive at the emergency department of a VA medical facility and indicate an emergency condition exists.

VA hospitals are currently considered to be “non-participating” hospitals and are therefore not obligated to fulfill EMTALA requirements. The VET Act would create similar EMTALA requirements for veterans visiting VA hospitals.

The VET Act requires that a VA hospital conduct a medical examination of an enrolled veteran to determine if an emergency medical condition exists. If an emergency medical condition exists, the VA hospital must either stabilize the patient or comply with the requirements of a proper transfer.

The men and women of our Armed Forces have sacrificed for us, and our nation must keep our promise to honor them and provide a high level of care. The VET Act will require greater accountability and much-needed improvements to emergency medical response from the VA. It is time to take action to make sure our veterans know that they are our priority.