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Veteran: "You're gonna get crushed" by VA health care bureaucracy

This May 19, 2014 photo shows a a sign in front of the Veterans Affairs building in Washington, DC.

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

When Marine Sgt. Michael Jeffords returned from Vietnam in 1966, he went to a Veterans Affairs hospital because he was having hearing problems after an IED exploded near him during combat. He says he had to wait a month before they would see him, then he had to jump through bureaucratic hoops just to prove his condition was authentic.

"I had to prove where I was, when it happened and how the incident occurred," Jeffords said from his Janesville, Wisconsin home. "It's kind of a frustrating experience because you think the government should know all this stuff."

Jeffords, now 71, said that the VA health care he has received over the years has generally been good - but the system designed to administer that care leaves veterans feeling disrespected and demoralized. He said the current allegations of treatment delays, preventable deaths and falsified records at VA hospitals nationwide doesn't surprise him.

"When you get between the gears of a big bureaucracy, you're gonna get crushed unless you're strong enough to get through it," he said.

Jeffords' sentiments were echoed by other veterans who spoke to CBS News this week. A few had complaints about VA medical care. Most were critical of the VA's administrative failures. None was surprised by the current reports of misconduct and treatment delays.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama finally addressed the issue publicly -- including allegations that 40 veterans may have died waiting for care at a Phoenix VA hospital. That hospital is among 26 being investigated nationwide, according to the VA inspector general.

"I will not stand for it - not as commander-in-chief but also not as an American," Mr. Obama said after meeting with embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The president is sending Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to meet with staff at the Phoenix VA hospital at the heart of the recent allegations.

But veterans complain that nothing has changed despite decades of well documented problems.

Ismael Bruno, a 41-year-old New York City firefighter who served in the Navy and the Marine Corps, says he no longer goes to VA hospitals because he felt like the administrative staffs there showed such little respect for veterans. He says scheduling appointments sometimes took several months and office employees display nothing but apathy while veterans wait alone for hours.

"It's always poor service," Bruno said. "I think I've gotten better service at the DMV."

Amid growing furor over veterans' health care, the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans group, has called on Shinseki to resign.

"He needs to make a statement to show the employees of VA that this needs to change now. One death is tragic. But when you hide it, that's unforgivable," American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Bruno said he'd like to see more veterans and fewer civilians working at VA hospitals. Other veterans want a major overhaul of the system, but they acknowledge that is unlikely - despite the agency's long track record of poor service. The Government Accountability Office reported on evidence of VA wait time failures as far back as 2000. Meanwhile, the Office of the Inspector General at the VA reported the same problem multiple times over the past decade.

A new CBS poll shows that 36 percent of veterans blame Shinseki and the agency he leads for the health care woes while 29 percent blame local VA hospitals. Last month, a Washington Post survey showed that 58 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say the VA is doing only a fair or poor job of meeting the needs of veterans.

"There really seems to be a system-wide culture that accepts this substandard efficiency in terms of delivery of care," said Nick McCormick, an Iraq war veteran who is a legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

One 66-year-old Army veteran, who asked to remain anonymous, said several years ago he had "trigger finger" - a painful condition in which your finger gets stuck in a bent position. He said the VA told him that he would just "have to live with it." He decided to consult a civilian doctor, who scheduled an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon within a week.

"That's why I left the VA - the fact that they didn't care," he said.

Still McCormick and other veterans said the actual care at most VA hospitals - once it is finally given - is excellent.

"It's quality care," McCormick said. "The real issue is the timeliness and efficiency of delivery."

That's something Tom Carter, a 59-year-old retired Army captain, can relate to. The disabled veteran said he has received top-notch care in Illinois for years. On the advice of VA doctors, he had a CT scan in November 2013. But he didn't receive the results that he is cancer-free until just this month - six months later.

"I would have been the spokesman for the VA," Carter said. "They always treated me extremely well, until now."

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com