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Veteran meets with VA official he was accused of threatening

Five days after armed agents showed up at his house investigating whether he made a threat against a top local Veterans Administration official, St. Petersburg veteran Michael Henry met with that official Wednesday morning to discuss his care.

The meeting with Suzanne Klinker, director of the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, came after agents from the VA's Office of Inspector General visited Henry on Friday to determine if he had threatened Klinker. No charges were ultimately filed, according to a spokesman for that office.

The visit by the agents, and the meeting with Klinker, were both prompted by Henry's complaints about the level of care he is receiving at the hospital.

Friday afternoon, Henry called the VA crisis line to complain that he was experiencing a delay in care. About 90 minutes later, two agents and two St. Petersburg police officers arrived at his house. A police report states that the agents were investigating Henry because he threatened the VA over the phone, telling an employee with the agency “that he knew where Director Suzanne Klinker lived, gave her address, and also said the name of her son who lives at the residence.”

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to press charges, according to the inspector general's office.

After Wednesday's meeting with Klinker, scheduled Monday after the Tribune contacted the Young center with questions about the threat allegations, Henry apologized to Klinker.

“I said I was sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable or made you feel weird,” Henry said he told Klinker. “I sincerely apologize for doing that. I didn't mean anything by it; I just want my health care and to be treated properly.”

Klinker would not comment about the statements attributed to Henry in the police report or the apology.

Despite the apology, Henry and the hospital disagree on both the tenor of the meeting and the level of care being provided.

Henry says he has been waiting too long to receive treatment for problems with his neck and that the meeting with Klinker was not particularly helpful. Young center officials say Henry has been properly treated, that there was no delay in his care and that the meeting with Klinker was “productive and beneficial.”

Henry, a medic with the Tennessee Army National Guard who served in the first Gulf War and later during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was medically retired in 2012, according to Army records. At the meeting with Klinker, Henry, 53, delivered a package of documents that he says lay out his medical history, which includes several procedures on his back stemming from a service-related injury.

Henry said that he began complaining about neck problems in September after what he says was a failed back surgery the previous month. Records he submitted to Klinker do not specify why he sought treatment then. In February, he says, he returned to the hospital seeking treatment for his neck pain. Unable to be seen by clinicians, he says he wound up banging his cane on a desk in anger, was escorted out and fined $275.

He says that in May, he was seen by a neurosurgeon who performs consultations, but not surgeries, at the hospital, which does not perform neurosurgery. The surgeon suggested that “further assessment with (Computerized Tomography) CT may be obtained if clinically warranted.”

Henry said a MRI performed on him before the consultation was done without contrasting dye that he says would show the difference between scar tissue and new damage, and was thus ineffective.

Hospital officials however say Henry, who has a long history of pain management treatment at the Young center, was treated promptly.

“The medical record indicates that a consult for neurosurgery was placed by his primary care provider on May 14,” said spokesman Jason Dangel.

The next day, the results of that consultation were reviewed by a neurosurgeon hired to provide opinions on the next step. Later that day, the neurosurgeon requested X-rays of Henry's neck. Henry completed the X-rays on May 20 and the images were forwarded to the neurosurgeon for review.

On June 27, the same day Henry complained to the patient advocate's office about not being seen and requested a meeting with Klinker, he was informed that he had been approved to receive neurosurgery care in the community, Dangel said. Henry has an appointment with a community hospital to begin treatment on Tuesday, Dangel said.

“It is my understanding that all clinically appropriate steps have been taken to ensure Mr. Henry receives timely treatment for his condition in the community,” Dangel said. “We are happy that we have the ability to facilitate this care and will continue to review any additional concerns in an effort to meet the patient's expectations.”

Henry, though, said the appointment is for a consultation only and that with the inadequate MRI, he is concerned that he is going to have to go back and get new diagnostic tests, starting the process all over again.

“I feel like a hamster on a wheel,” he said.

Hours after Henry visited Klinker, U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross toured the Veterans Benefits Administration St. Petersburg Regional Office on the same campus. The office is the nation's busiest claims processing center and covers all of Florida.

The tour came after Ross became the latest legislator to hold a veterans intake day to assess how veterans feel about the care they are given. The intake days began after a wide array of problems with the VA system became public, including delays leading to deaths. Those revelations and subsequent public criticism eventually led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Ross said he came away from the tour, where he also met with officials and two pre-selected employees, glad to see a transition to a paperless record-keeping system well underway. But he also expressed concern that efforts to deal with the backlog in compensation claims was resulting in increases in appeals.

As of May there were more than 21,000 backlogged compensation claims 125 days or older at the St. Petersburg office and more than 20,000 appeals.

The transition to electronic record keeping, Ross said, is about halfway complete,

“Hopefully, a year from now, they should be able to expedite claims significantly faster,” he said.

Calling the tour “tightly controlled,” Ross said he did not see the kinds of problems listed in a Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General report that found disarray at the office. The majority of those problems were addressed by the regional office before the report was released.

“This was an introductory meeting,” he said. “They were a little stiff about having me there, and wondered what the agenda was. It was not the inspector general's visit. I was there to find out what they do and how I can be of help.”

Regional office officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

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