LOCAL VETERAN’S CRITIQUE OF VA GOES VIRAL
When a frustrated Jonathan Devine walked out of the Kalispell Veterans Affairs clinic on Tuesday, Feb. 13, he didn’t blast music or visit a bar to blow off steam. Instead, he pulled out his phone, turned the camera on himself and hit record.
“My appointment was at 9:15, and it’s now … 12:05,” the Army veteran of the Afghanistan War narrated as he flashed the clinic’s sign on his way out the door. In just under four minutes, he detailed a litany of issues with his appointment. For one, after three hours of waiting, his HPV vaccination – the reason he was called in – was still unfilled.
He was particularly incensed, however, by a confusing rule that only allows veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA primary care facility to receive treatment outside the VA system. Devine was hoping to get an X-ray to diagnose pain in his pinky finger – the result of years of abuse as an Army mechanic – but was told that since he lived within miles of the Kalispell VA clinic, he was not eligible to receive services outside the VA system; his X-rays would only be covered at the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison, outside Helena. Rather than drive 200 miles for an X-ray, Devine took his grievances to Facebook.
“Three hours of my day are gone – no vaccination, no X-ray, no answers,” he recorded.
He turned off the camera, then posted his video to Facebook. The video spread, in his words, “like wildfire,” seen over 400,000 times by viewers across the country. His Facebook feed flooded with messages of outrage and support. And his critique of the 40-mile rule, along with his name, has shot from Sen. Jon Tester’s office to a letter on President Trump’s desk.
Reports of incompetence or dangerous negligence have long dogged the federal VA system. In 2014, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned when a federal investigation revealed falsified data masking dangerously long patient wait times. The Obama administration responded with the Veterans Choice Program, which tried to mitigate the VA’s case backlog by allowing veterans to seek care from community providers outside the VA system. But while the Choice program “was thought out well and looked good on paper, it didn’t work well in practice,” said Dave Kuntz, press secretary for Tester, who has co-authored the “Caring For Our Veterans Act” to overhaul the program. There have been critical delays in reimbursing private providers, Kuntz said, as well as arbitrary hoops for veterans to jump through that make receiving care inefficient or difficult.
One of those hoops is the 40-mile rule, which stipulates that veterans are only able to receive care outside the VA system if they live more than 40 miles from a VA primary care facility. This provision can have major consequences for veterans like Devine, who live in more rural states with hundreds of miles between VA facilities. In Devine’s case, though he lives within walking distance of Kalispell Regional Medical Center and several private providers, the X-ray for his pinky would only be covered if he visited the VA hospital at Fort Harrison, 200 miles away.
The 40-mile provision has drawn criticism before, but Devine’s video brought renewed focus on the issue, drawing “attention to the absurdity of what too many veterans have to put up with in Montana and across rural America,” wrote Tester in a letter sent to Trump. Tester referenced Devine’s name and video in his letter that urged Trump to support the “Caring For Our Veterans Act.” The bipartisan bill, which would do away with 40-mile provision and, according to Tester’s office, “streamline” community care options for veterans, currently awaits scheduling for a Senate vote.
IN THE meantime, the viral video has altered the trajectory of both Devine’s medical care and stance on activism. Devine said he’d heard negative rumors about inefficiencies and difficulties with the VA – it’s why he only enrolled in its health care system in 2017, four years after returning from Afghanistan – but when he posted his video, he was shocked by the overwhelming response. His inbox filled with horror stories from VA clinics across the country – from a vet who had made the 3.5-hour trip to Fort Harrison only to be booked for the wrong services, and from people who lost loved ones while they waited for long-overdue chest exams or mental health care. His comments section filled with people thanking him for speaking up.
“I answer a minimum of 50 messages or comments directed at me every day now,” he told the Daily Inter Lake over a week after his post.
“It’s nothing that I expected to happen, but apparently it’s a very serious and relatable issue.”
The spotlight has required great energy, but he was glad to see that his account gave a voice to other veterans and their loved ones’ experiences.
“This wouldn’t have gone viral if this wasn’t something that people related to,” he said. “So I know that it is a national problem.”
The video’s reach, he said, also helped Devine care for his medical needs. Devine said that within 24 hours of the post, the Kalispell VA clinic contacted him to inform him that everything had been taken care of. The next day, Devine had a long-needed vision appointment completed, contact lenses ordered and an X-ray confirming arthritis in his finger performed by a private provider in Kalispell.
Clearing up his medical needs was a relief, he said, but the experience pointed to larger issues and unnecessary delays in the VA system. He believes his issues were tended to in an effort to keep him quiet once the video began to spread. If all his issues could be relieved in a day, he wonders, why was there a months-long backlog?
Posting to Facebook may have connected him with veterans across the country, but it also allowed him to skip ahead in a patient waiting line that can stretch for months. “What vets are sitting at home that have been waiting on meds, or have been waiting on treatment, or have been waiting on whatever for six weeks, six months, a year?”
Despite multiple attempts, the VA was unable to be reached for comment.
Devine made clear that “there are some [VA] clinics out there that are performing above bar. And I give all of those clinics all the respect in the world because they’re doing their job properly and obviously they care. But who knows for how long, however many clinics haven’t been paying attention, haven’t been caring,” he said.
Encouraged by the VA’s swift response and the wide reach of his video, Devine said he now hopes to continue speaking up on behalf of veterans who either can’t or won’t.
The reach of his video post, he said, “has me realizing – especially for those people who are like ‘social media isn’t the place for it’ – I had all my care done 48 hours after that video went up. Obviously when it reaches hundreds of thousands of people…It is the way to reach people. It is a social network. Other people can relate and if they feel that it touched them, they can share it.”
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said, so “I’m telling everybody, ‘Get squeaky. Get real loud.'”