I’ve been to two other VAs. The first I’ll call VA Charleston. The second I’ll call VA North.
This VA was really busy and had valet parking. Like a continual stream of old people pulling up, vans with wheelchair ramps and these guys hustling to get the cars parked. The lot was always full and/or under construction, so if you wanted to find a spot you had to circle. I never parked in the lot because I always had my gun in the car and while the law about taking guns into federal facilities is pretty clear, whether parking lots count is not, but I didn’t want to be a test case.
I liked this VA so much that I volunteered for various experiments and studies. In one of them they gave me LSD and trained me to be an assassin. And I got paid. Also, the VA was an hour away, but it was along a straight highway, so it took me like 60 minutes to go 60 miles. So the travel pay was really good for the time you spent driving. What’s that? I see you non-veterans are puzzled. Yes, they pay you to go to the VA. There’s like a six dollar deductible, so if you live too close you get nothing, but every time I would go to the Charleston VA (for a scheduled appointment, lol, otherwise I would have done nothing but drive back and forth all day) I’d get $40-$80 in cash. Why the spread? Because you’re filling out a form and giving it to a capricious bureaucrat. If the amount seemed low, I’d ask about it and they’d say something like “I’m sorry sir, regulations state that according to subsection VI.A.1.6 of our policy, since this is the second Tuesday of the month and you didn’t fill out Line Seven – the round-trip verification – of your voucher last time, you only receive %77 of your allotted Title X pay quota for the fiscal year.” In other words, you’re holding up the line you fucking deadbeat.
Between the travel pay and the pay from the experiments – which was sometimes in cash – I’d make out pretty good in terms of “money you don’t have to tell your wife about.” Also, it was pretty much the only time I’d get out of the house. We were living with my inlaws and the local area could be described as “post-apocalyptic swamp.” So I was glad to go to Charleston where there was culture and by culture I mean civilization and by civilization there were people living on our road that didn’t have electrical power or indoor plumbing and spent all day either picking up things on the side of the road, or sitting on lawn chairs drinking beers using a giant wooden cable spool as a table.
For a while I was in this experiment where I had to come in every Friday. I’d take my experimental drugs, get my blood drawn, fight against the robot spiders in the basement arena, collect my money, and then I’d get some food, maybe go to the Charleston library, or look at boats. Then in the evening I’d go to Starbucks. I was the token veteran member of this writing group. They were pretty cool, but I think they expected Bradley Manning and they got Ted Nugent. I wouldn’t get back to the house until everybody was in bed. It was a great adventure.
This was another giant VA hospital, but oddly it was always almost deserted. Way less travel pay. Minus the six dollar deductible, I’d get direct deposit of $1.63, which is well below my record of $87 in cash from Charleston. The staff seemed bored, like they were glad to finally have a patient. Every appointment seemed to lead to two others. They wanted to stay in touch via phone, postal mail, regular email, a special secure messaging email, and – I’m not making this up – webcam. They were very nice though: A couple of times they helped me out when I had problems with my GI Bill, or the one time my grad school tried to bill me $1000 for insurance because they sent an email opt-out form to a non-existent email address. So, also a good place, (but much less fun due to no robot spiders, LSD, or writing group)
Another Northern VA
This VA was as large as a college campus. In fact it was next to a college campus, which it dwarfed. All the buildings were connected by a series of underground tunnels, so I had a totally new way to get lost (see next section) They had inpatient, outpatient, patient-patient, rehab, you could be born there, work there, live there, and be buried in their cemetary. In between you could enjoy the football field, the soccer field, the swimming pool, or the extensive walking trails. When I was there, however, the only recreational facility I saw anyone using was the Plexiglas-encased smoking area.
Navigating the VA
I’ve mentioned before that I have terrible directional skills. This is compounded by the layout of all VAs, which charitably can be described as chaotic. Why? Redesigning them would cost money, the VA prioritizes treating sick and injured vets over architecture, and the person in charge was probably very stupid. The buildings are always labeled in a sequence like this: “1, 2, 777, 1351A, SGT Bob Bloggins Memorial Facility, 4, and a sign reading ‘Department Moved to 1663 Boston Street.'” The interior room layouts are the same way: “Get your blood drawn in Bldg 130, Rm 217A, and report to Bldg 1031, Rm AA-18 for your doctor’s appointment.” At my current VA, there is an elevator with two sets of doors and it travels on half-floors. I’m not making this up, and it made me feel like an asshole to take the elevator for half a floor, but there was no way (at least as far as I could tell) to take the stairs. Because of my navigational problems, at every VA I’ve been to, I’ve wandered into the administration wing where there’s opulently decorated offices and oil paintings of past directors and people rushing to ask if they can help me, praying that I’m not a deranged vet ready to unleash a barrage of high-caliber complaints directly at some high official.
The VA has a computer system. This is utterly pointless, as the computer system will not allow other VAs on the same system to share information, so when you move, they will not be able to retrieve your records. At my current VA, they were trying to get me to fill out the “Welcome to the World of the VA” paperwork again. I started to have a temper tantrum, and they sent me to a secret basement room where I explained my predicament to some guy who just stared at me while I talked.
I moved from [REDACTED] But I went to the VA there. My records should be in the computer? They’re trying to make me reregister??
Just silence while he looked at me. I started to get a little nervous. This guy could have been a great cop.
Look man, I don’t want to be assigned a doctor – or ever come here at any time. If I have an emergency, I’m not driving 2 hours, I’m going to the ER. I just need to be in the system and they told me I couldn’t do it over the phone.
This did the trick. He took my ID card and my last four, clicked a few buttons and pulled up all my information.
He’s the only employee of the VA who can use the computer. It’s not that the employees are incompetent – it’s that their computers are.
A lot of VAs now have an automated check-in computer with a touch screen. Instead of the receptionist having to help you, you enter your complete social security number and date of birth in large easy-to-read numbers while everyone behind you in line watches. Your name pops up with your appointment: CHRISTMAS, RUIN 123-45-6789 10:00 AM Rectal Probe. Then you press Is This You? Check In. The device has never in my life checked me in. If you’re a minute late, a minute early, they spelled your name wrong, or there is some discrepancy with your paperwork, the screen will turn red and read CANNOT CHECK IN and the receptionist will have to help you.
Because of various problems, like people killing themselves, they are required to ask you about 830 questions and record your answers in a database every time you visit. Even if you are in perfect health and just there for a checkup, you get: “Do you feel like killing yourself?” “Do you have avian flu?” “Do you own a bicycle?” Because this would make every appointment take hours, the nurse just starts mumbling to herself, “do you have a fever? No. No. No. No. Nope. did you serve in WWI. No.” and populating all the boxes with “N” or whatever response won’t make the computer beep.
Once in a while you’ll meet an employee who is totally tech-savvy and can handle whatever the computer requires of them. Inevitably the computer will sense them starting to win – and crash. This happened at my latest appointment and the nurse tried to ask me all 830 questions from memory and record my answers on a piece of paper – but she forgot some and several times had to rush back into the waiting room to ask me things like “Oh, have you been to Western Africa in the last 21 days or are bleeding from every orifice?”
Final Part: Patients and Staff at the VA