Hurricane Maria: VA in Puerto Rico still trying to reach more than 500 homebound vets

Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria roared through Puerto Rico, destroying much of the island’s infrastructure, more than 500 homebound at-risk veterans still haven’t been reached by doctors, nurses and social workers, Fox News has learned.

There are 1,687 homebound vets in Puerto Rico who require ongoing treatment such as dialysis, chemotherapy and insulin to survive. Since Maria struck Sept. 20, the San Juan VA Medical Center has dispatched special teams consisting of a doctor, nurse and social worker to visit the homes of each one of these vets.

It has been a tough task. Most of the island still lacks power because of damage to the electric grid and intermittent phone service because of downed lines and cell towers. Many rural areas have been rendered inaccessible by damage to roads and the scarcity of gasoline for vehicles.

As of Tuesday, VA officials said visits have taken place at the homes of 1,147 homebound vets. That leaves 540 more to be seen. The VA is vowing to reach the rest but isn’t sure how long it will take.

"The safety of all our patients is a top priority," VA spokesperson Mary Kay Rutan told Fox News Tuesday. "We have been going out in the communities where it is safe to do so. Additionally, we are engaged with local shelter operations and other agencies to assist in helping us locate veterans."

One of the visits resulted in a homebound vet who needed more treatment being transported by military helicopter to the San Juan VA, Rutan said.

Another visit brought more insulin to 75-year-old Vietnam vet Miguel Olivera in the hard-hit mountain town of Aguas Buenas, north of San Juan. The Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington had asked the VA to check on Olivera after learning that he was in danger of losing his last vial of insulin because he had no electricity to keep it refrigerated.

“I’m just happy to hear one veteran is being taken care of.” VFW spokesman Joe Davis told Fox News. “I wish there was more that all of us could do for Puerto Rico, it’s just terrible down there.”

VA whistleblower Joseph Colon, a credentialing official at the San Juan VA Medical Center, said more needed to be done for the island's homebound vets.

“If you are truly in the business of caring for veterans it should not take two weeks to check on all high-risk patients,” Colon told Fox News.

Colon also complained that the majority of staff at the San Juan VA had to be sent home last week because the hospital was running out of food, water and diesel fuel for generators.

He also accused hospital leaders of not having a contingency plan to deal with the storm and said the hospital’s acting director, Dr. Antonio Sanchez, wasn’t around when Maria struck.

“If you know you are going to have problems with water and possibly the electrical grid, why wouldn’t you stock up on supplies?” he said. “There is a big new concrete garage next door, they could’ve put it in there.”

As of Monday, the hospital was back at full strength, according to officials.

Rutan defended the hospital’s plans for dealing with Maria and the previous one that passed through, Hurricane Irma.

“The San Juan VA Medical Center has comprehensive and well-tested emergency management and operations plans where they have successfully managed numerous hurricanes and other events, including most recently Hurricane Irma,” she said.

Rutan also said that Sanchez was at a VA meeting in the U.S. the day of the hurricane and returned as fast as he could three days later.

“He was on the very first available flight to the island on Saturday after the storm,” Rutan said. “In his absence, the deputy medical center director and the full incident management team conducted necessary operations ensuring the safety of more than 300 patients and 800 staff during the height of the storm.”

But Colon said he still questioned why Sanchez wouldn’t skip the meeting knowing that a Category 4 storm was bearing down on Puerto Rico.

“He had plenty of time to get back here – was that conference so important?” he said. 

 

Tori Richards is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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