Distance, delays and denial: Money, contracts needed to give veterans transplants

Transplant trouble with veterans

SAN ANTONIO -- Sadly, thousands of veterans have died over the years waiting for an organ transplant.

Many are forced to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to get a transplant, causing them to lose jobs, their houses - everything.

Thanks to an investigation done in collaboration with three of KENS 5's sister stations, many veterans now have the option to get treatment in their hometown.

There's a catch. The program allowing this change is neither funded nor accepted in San Antonio.

It's called the Veterans Choice Program.

The program allows qualifying veterans to get a transplant locally versus traveling hundreds or thousands of miles for the procedure.

There's a road block.

The contracts and the money to pay the hospitals for these transplants doesn't exist yet.

So, 20 or more veterans from the San Antonio area are in caught up in distance, delays and denials.

On Sept. 20, Methodist Transplant Specialty Hospital sent a letter to Vietnam Veteran, Jeffrey Cadle, telling him his medical appointment had been canceled.

"We ran up against a funding issue," said Cadle.

The 68-year-old, who served with the 5th Mechanised Infantry Division in the Vietnam War, has an anneurism and needs immediate care on top of needing a liver transplant.

"It's especially critical now that they found a cancerous tumor on my liver," he said.

Cadle was told he qualified for the Veterans Choice Program. Instead of getting a transplant more than 200 miles away in Houston, he found out he could get the operation in San Antonio.

"Being in Houston for extended periods of time would jeopardize my business and my income," said Cadle. "I don't think it would survive for a long absence without me."

While the funds are available, Jamie McBride, the Solid Organ Transplant Program manager at the South Texas VA, said administrators won't let that money be used to remove the organ from a potential donor.

"Delaying their care for weeks or months at a time while the powers that be try to figure out this process is detrimental to the veteran," said McBride.

McBride said the way to get funding is simple. Congress must make the VA a secondary payer for organ transplant.

"Allow these people to use insurance, Medicare and Medicaid. We can do it a lot cheaper," he said. "Why is it that a veteran who can go and survive battle somewhere else winds up losing a battle for their life locally in a medical system that's available to them 100 yards from our front door?"

A local Gulf War veteran, who wished to remain anonymous, said he has two family donors lined up and ready.

The transplant process spurred countless questions he said go unanswered.

"It takes hours to talk to them, or it takes days. I think to get a hold of somebody for my transplant, it took almost two months.You have to give them a message and relay the message to a nurse. I never get a response back like what I would do next, what's the next process. I was in limbo."

He needs a kidney transplant and was told he'd have to travel to Houston to get it. The Veterans Choice Program wouldn't cover his expenses locally.

"All they told me was that they're just not going to cover me and that was it. I was lost. I was like, 'What do I do now?' We sacrificed our lives for our country. We just want a little bit back. We want to feel like we're taken care of. They seem like, 'Oh well, just take a number. Another casualty.'"

Most veterans don't have time to wait.

Laura Sauceda's husband, Eloy, is in the hospital waiting on a liver and kidney transplant.

"Would you want to have to sit in limbo and wait? Would you want to not know what's going to happen because the government can't decide how we're going to fund these things?" said Sauceda.

While Houston is an option for the veteran, Sauceda said leaving her job and her family in San Antonio would be detrimental.

Sauceda decided they wouldn't wait any longer, and chose to cover the surgeries under her own insurance.

"We live in Military City USA," she said. "Look at everything the city is founded on, and we can't give back to our own? That's disheartening."

In other cities across the US, half of the specialized VA transplant centers have a contract to outsource the transplant procedure.

In San Antonio, McBride said the VA is denied access to specialized local care.

"Basically, they're telling our center, our leadership, that you're going to find out where you're going to get these millions of dollars to do surgery out of your own budget that they don't have," said McBride.

McBride said to save lives, that needs to change.

"It reminds me of an alcoholic. You need to first admit you have a problem in order to fix it. If your leader of surgery is saying this really isn't an issue, although he himself would use local transplant as well with his own insurance,

"That is a problem. That, to me, is not being proactive for the veterans. If you're not proactive for the veterans, you shouldn't be at the VA," said McBride.

House Veterans Affairs Chairman, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, demanded that the Veterans Choice Program be used for local transplants.

The VA said providers wishing to provide services through the Choice Program must:

-Accept Medicare rates.
-Meet all Medicare Conditions of Participation and Conditions for Coverage.
-Be in compliance with all applicable federal and state regulatory requirements.
-Have a full, current, and unrestricted license in the state where the service(s) are delivered.
-Have same or similar credentials as VA staff.
-Submit a copy of the medical records to the contractor for medical care and services provided to Veterans for inclusion in the VA electronic record.

For more information on the Veterans Choice Program, review the following document.

Veterans Choice Program

As to when we can expect hospitals in San Antonio to start accepting the Choice Program, that answer was not immediately available from the VA.

(© 2016 KENS)


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