Leander Veteran fighting for VA to pay for kidney transplant

A local veteran is in desperate need of a kidney transplant. The good news is his son is a match and a willing donor. So, what’s the problem? His family tells FOX 7: the VA is giving them, and other veterans, the runaround. 

“You served your country, you travel overseas, you do everything you're supposed to do,” said Charles Nelson of Leander. “And, then you come home and it's well, yeah you have healthcare, you have a Choice Program. And, then there's all this fine line, fine writing, that puts burdens on you or your family - to try to get what they told you, you were entitled to."

The 48-year-old is a 100% service-connected, disabled Army veteran. A bout of untreated strep throat, while he was stationed in South Korea, led to kidney disease.

Nelson needs a transplant and his 28-year-old son Austin is a match. Initially, Charles Nelson was told the surgery at University Hospital in San Antonio would be covered under the VA’s Choice Program – because he lives more than 40-miles from a VA transplant facility. His family just found out, Choice won’t cover the surgery – because the donor is not a veteran.

"So, I said, okay all we need to do is get the money for my son to go through his transplant,” explained his wife, Tamara Nelson. “We'll try to raise money or whatever to do that. And, they (VA) said no - that they won't cover my husband or him (son), because it's really kind of one surgery."

But, that hasn’t stopped her from trying to fight the red tape.

"I'm already having to deal with a sick husband - that my son is also going to be donating to him,” said Tamara Nelson. “But, not only that, I'm also having to fight the government to make this happen - which is disgusting. I mean it's bad."

She said the only way the VA will cover her husband’s and her son’s surgeries, is if they were done at one of only two VA hospitals that perform living donor kidney transplants: Portland, Oregon or Nashville, Tennessee.

“With him being immunocompromised, to go on a plane and for all of our family to travel, it would put extreme undue burden on us,” said Tamara Nelson. “In Nashville, there is a year wait. In Oregon, there is a four month wait. Well, he’s extremely sick and needs a transplant now.”

Jaime McBride is a program manager, for solid organ transplants, for the South Texas Veterans Healthcare System” and a VA whistleblower. He has been fighting on behalf of the Nelsons and other veterans in need of transplants.

"My facility, Audie Murphy has been phenomenal,” said McBride. “The leadership has been very supportive. But, we are hamstrung from the national level. There's nothing on the local level we can do."

McBride has reported long wait times at VA transplant clinics to the Office of Inspector General and the Office of Special Council is currently investigating.

“Less than a month ago, we had national meetings,” McBride said. And, Choice said all transplant patients meet the criteria for Choice, due to undue burden and hardship of travel for the patient and their support person who has to be with them - whether its living donor or deceased donor - doesn't matter.”
A week later, he said the VA pulled a 180.

"We received some emails from national leadership, stating Choice can not be used the way that it's written for any non-veteran surgical interventions - whether it's a living donor or deceased donor. So that basically eliminates transplants period from Choice."

McBride then asked national leadership to release the “Transplant Special Purpose Funds,” to allow his facility in San Antonio to pay to have living kidney donor transplant surgeries done at University Hospital.
The VA declined his request.

"What we need is local people to contact their representatives - to get them to act on Choice and to change it so that we can transplant our people locally,” said McBride.

The Nelsons plan to continue to fight to change VA policy, in an effort to help other veterans in similar situations.

“I have a good advocate,” said Charles Nelson about his wife. “And, some of these older guys that don't - where they're being told ‘no we're not going to do that for you’ - they just walk away. They don't fight the system."

While the Nelsons said they appreciate all of the doctors and other healthcare professionals who’ve been treating Charles at the Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio – they wonder if VA officials in Washington D.C. have veterans’ best interests at heart.

"It's kind of like they get to choose whether you live or die,” said Tamara Nelson. “It all comes back to money.”
FOX 7 has contacted the VA several times during the past week, asking questions about its policy on providing and paying for living kidney donor transplants.

They chose not to answer some very basic questions that would not have violated patient privacy laws.
Instead, the sent us the following statement:

While we would like to be more specific in responding to these questions, South Texas Veterans Health Care System is still working closely with our VA national office to come up with a viable solution to assist the family.  While we don't know what the final decision will be, please be assured that we will continue to explore options to help the family.

But, time is running out. Charles Nelson will now be using Medicare to pay for his June 9th transplant surgery at University Hospital in San Antonio. Still, the Nelsons believe the VA should be the one to pick up the tab.

Below is the email exchange between FOX 7 Austin and VA representatives – between May 19 and May 24.

From: Rebecca Thomas [mailto:Rebecca.Thomas@FOXTV.COM]
Sent: Thursday, May 19, 2016 2:44 PM
To: STX Media
Cc: Chris Walker
Subject: [EXTERNAL] Media Request
Good afternoon,

We’ve been contacted by a 100% service connected veteran who is in dire need of a kidney transplant.
Charles Nelson lives in Leander and has been seeing nephrologists at the Audie L. Murphy VA in San Antonio.

His 28-year-old son is a match and a willing kidney donor.

I’m told the surgery is scheduled for June 9 at University Hospital in San Antonio – and, that the VA is denying coverage of the transplant surgery through the Choice Program or any others.

According to my research, the only transplant center in Texas is in Houston – and, they only do deceased donor kidney transplants.

Is that correct?

If that is the case, where is Charles (or any Texas patient) supposed to go – for a living kidney donor transplant - covered 100 % by the VA?

Or, does the VA – and any of its affiliated programs - not cover living kidney donor transplants?

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,
Rebecca Thomas
Evening Anchor/Reporter
FOX 7 Austin

From: Madla, Nenette [mailto:Nenette.Madla@va.gov]
Sent: Thursday, May 19, 2016 4:03 PM
To: Rebecca Thomas
Cc: STX Media; Chris Walker
Subject: FW: [EXTERNAL] Media Request

Rebecca, I am in receipt of your inquiry.  In order for me to provide specifics to this case, I will need a signed release by the Veteran.  For now, I am providing you with a copy of the VA guidelines that South Texas Veterans Health Care System follows. I am also including a link to the transplant program. 
http://www.va.gov/health/services/transplant/

From: Rebecca Thomas [mailto:Rebecca.Thomas@FOXTV.COM]
Sent: Thursday, May 19, 2016 4:40 PM
To: Madla, Nenette
Cc: Chris Walker
Subject: RE: [EXTERNAL] Media Request

Regarding this:
(7) The Veteran and a support person, and the living donor and a support person, if applicable, are reimbursed for all transplant-related round-trip travel costs including pre-transplant evaluation, transplant episode, and post-transplant follow-up.

“Reimbursement” – as I understand it – means patient and donor would have to pay out of pocket for travel – which could be a financial burden – not to mention the cost of hotels stays and meals while out of town.
Under the Choice Program – shouldn’t the patient and donor surgery at University Hospital in San Antonio be covered – because the vet lives more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or transplant center???

Removing the named patient from the equation: please answer my earlier questions – in generalities. Let’s cut the red tape – and keep it simple please.

Rebecca Thomas
Evening Anchor/Reporter
FOX 7 Austin

From: Rebecca Thomas [mailto:Rebecca.Thomas@FOXTV.COM]
> Sent: Friday, May 20, 2016 1:51 PM
> To: Madla, Nenette
> Cc: Chris Walker
Subject: [EXTERNAL] Media Request

Hi Nenette,
Just checking in - to see where we are on those questions regarding living donor kidney transplants.
Rebecca :-)

On May 20, 2016, at 4:39 PM, Madla, Nenette <Nenette.Madla@va.gov> wrote:

South Texas Veterans Health Care System submits the following statement:

"While we would like to be more specific in responding to these
questions,  South Texas Veterans Health Care System is still working
closely with our VA National office to come up with a viable solution
to assist the family.  While we don't know what the final decision
will be, please be assured that we will continue to explore options to
help the family.  "

Nenette C. Madla
Public Affairs Officer
210.978.2002

Re: [EXTERNAL] Media Request
Rebecca Thomas Rebecca.Thomas@FOXTV.COM
Fri 5/20/2016 4:51 PM
Madla, Nenette Nenette.Madla@va.gov
Chris Walker <Chris.Walker@FOXTV.COM>; Raeann Christensen Raeann.Christensen@FOXTV.COM

Once again, please answer all my questions in generalities.

Does the VA healthcare system cover living donor kidney transplants - for both the veteran and the donor?

If not - why not?

If so, what are the terms/policies?

You have the ability to answer these specific questions.

Again - remove this particular veteran from the equation.

Rebecca

Sent from my iPhone

-----Original Message-----
From: Rebecca Thomas [mailto:Rebecca.Thomas@FOXTV.COM]
Sent: Monday, May 23, 2016 3:52 PM
To: Madla, Nenette
Cc: Chris Walker
Subject: RE: [EXTERNAL] Media Request

Hi Nenette,

Do you have a VA contact, at the national level, who you could refer me to?

Since the buck stops there - I'd like to hear from them.

Thanks for your help. :-)

Rebecca Thomas
Evening Anchor/Reporter

From: Madla, Nenette
Sent: Monday, May 23, 2016 04:12 PM
To: Rebecca Thomas <Rebecca.Thomas@FOXTV.COM>
Cc: Chris Walker <Chris.Walker@FOXTV.COM>
Subject: RE: [EXTERNAL] Media Request

Hi Rebecca! I have forwarded your request to Ms.  Jessica Jacobsen who is working on getting a contact at the national level.   As soon as I receive the information, I will share with you.  Or Ms. Jacobsen might just respond directly to both of us. 

Nenette

From: Rebecca Thomas [mailto:Rebecca.Thomas@FOXTV.COM]
Sent: Tuesday, May 24, 2016 02:41 PM
To: Jacobsen, Jessica B
Cc: Chris Walker <Chris.Walker@FOXTV.COM>
Subject: RE: [EXTERNAL] Media Request

Hi Jessica - do you have a national contact number for me yet?

Rebecca Thomas
Evening Anchor/Reporter
FOX 7 Austin
Phone: 512-495-7783
Mobile: 512-731-3124
Rebecca.Thomas@foxtv.com
Twitter: @RebeccaOnFOX7

Re: [EXTERNAL] Media Request
Jacobsen, Jessica B jessica.jacobsen@va.gov
Tue 5/24/2016 2:51 PM
Rebecca Thomas Rebecca.Thomas@FOXTV.COM
Chris Walker <Chris.Walker@FOXTV.COM>; Madla, Nenette <Nenette.Madla@va.gov>

Hi Rebecca,
I am still trying to get a response for you. 
Jessica

Re: [EXTERNAL] Media Request
Jacobsen, Jessica B jessica.jacobsen@va.gov
Tue 5/24/2016 6:20 PM
Rebecca Thomas Rebecca.Thomas@FOXTV.COM
Chris Walker <Chris.Walker@FOXTV.COM>; Madla, Nenette Nenette.Madla@va.gov

Rebecca,

Looks like I will not have anything further for you tonight additional then what we sent on Friday.  But please know VA is working to help the family as best we can, because that is our goal to treat and take care of each Veteran that has so honorably earned our care.  Please use the below statement in tonight's story, and if I get additional answers to your questions, I will certainly send your way. 

"While we would like to be more specific in responding to these questions, South Texas Veterans Health Care System is still working closely with our VA national office to come up with a viable solution to assist the family.  While we don't know what the final decision will be, please be assured that we will continue to explore options to help the family."

 

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