Vet baffled by VA’s refusal to pay bill
When Larry Schafer started trembling uncontrollably on May 24, his wife, Karen, called for emergency help.
“I was shaking so bad I thought I was having a heart attack,” Schafer said.
Ambulance personnel sat in his dining room and called the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where they were told to divert Schafer from the VA to St. Mary’s Hospital instead.
As a result of that, Schafer got bills for about $5,000 for treatment he received at St. Mary’s.
The VA, Schafer said, ought to be liable for the bill because he was being treated for a service-related condition.
The VA, however, declined to pay the bill, leaving Schafer with few options but to dig into his own pocket.
“And I don’t have the money,” Schafer said.
VA officials said they couldn’t comment directly on Schafer’s case, but one did note that veterans frequently fail to complete the paperwork necessary for coverage.
“You have to do the paperwork,” spokesman Paul Sweeney said. “If it is service-connected, then it’s on our bill.”
He has appealed the bill, to no avail, Schafer said, holding up his denial letters that refer him to Medicare, which he said will leave him holding 20 percent of the bill.
Schafer said he is well-known at the Grand Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
While Schafer wondered whether he’s not being covered because he was treated at St. Mary’s, Sweeney said it’s normal for veterans with serious emergency conditions such as heart attacks to be sent to regional trauma centers such as St. Mary’s.
“We’re not rated for open-heart surgery” at the VA Medical Center, Sweeney said, because such a unit would have to be open at all times. Even if the VA could afford that, he added, “We don’t have the volume for them to keep their skills sharp.”
The VA has treated a variety of Schafer’s ailments, from replacing joints to flying Schafer to Denver for heart treatment at the cost of $20,000, he said.
Schafer said he suffers from a variety of conditions that are the long-lasting remnants of his service as something of a two-legged guinea pig in what was known as Operation Whitecoat.
Schafer was a practicing 22- or 23-year-old Seventh-day Adventist when he entered the Army at Fort Detrick, Md. There, he said, he and 2,300 other young men who didn’t smoke or drink volunteered to be exposed to a variety of ailments, such as yellow fever; hepatitis A; the plague, tularemia or rabbit fever; and other diseases. The participants then were treated to determine the effectiveness of antibiotics.
Operation Whitecoat ran from 1954 to 1973 and included 153 research projects aimed at defending soldiers and civilians from the effects of biological warfare.
Though he’s been treated for his heart ailment previously by the VA and again since the May incident, Schafer said he fears the VA is preparing to say his condition is unrelated to his service.
Friends of his from Operation Whitecoat — so named because the participants were listed as medics — have suffered conditions such as his, Schafer said.
“There was every disease that ever was on that base” at Fort Detrick, Schafer said.
Dr. Frank Damazo, a Maryland physician who wrote a book about Operation Whitecoat, said surveys of as many as 40 percent of the participants in Operation Whitecoat have shown no long-term effects beyond those that affect other people in the armed services.
“Some have thought they were discriminated against,” Damazo said, “but they’re just like every other veteran.”
Not so in Schafer’s mind, who has tracked symptoms along with several friends.
“They’ve got a hell of a time convincing five of us” that there aren’t long-lasting effects from Operation Whitecoat, he said.