Veterans can get help at the VA

Here’s a sentence I never expected to write: If you’re a military veteran, and you haven’t been to the VA hospital, check it out.

When I was semi-voluntarily retired in 2007, I got pay and benefits for 15 months. The health insurance died in January, and you can imagine my delight to learn that extending it under the travesty called COBRA would cost $1,267 a month.

Pause for reflection: We’ve earned decent salaries, lived frugally and put away 10 percent of our income every year. We’ve avoided debt and remained in our creaky house until we feel like those old couples you used to see in stories about new subdivisions, on their porches with shotguns, hollering, “Git offen my land!” If we can’t afford COBRA, what do the poor people do?

When I mentioned this on the radio one day, a listener called. “Check the VA,” he said. “It’s great.”

I didn’t know I was eligible. Wasn’t the VA just for lifers and people with service-connected disabilities? Weren’t they kept in dungeon-like confinement, covered with bedsores, betting on races among the rats to pass the hours?

As it turned out, no.

I went to www.va.gov, filled out a form and clicked SEND. Four days later, I got a letter from the Ioannis Lougaris Medical Center in Reno: They’d received my application, but needed a signature. I dropped by, signed the form and was sucked into the machine.

So far, it’s great.

If you’ve been in the military or even gone to the DMV, you’ll have an idea what I expected: the standard government runaround, long waits, missing records, don’t have authorization, you’ll have to reschedule.

Not this time. I showed up one minute late for my first appointment, and they were calling my name. The clerk had all my information, so I didn’t have to fill out six more forms listing my phone number and emergency contact. He asked a few questions and took several minutes explaining my rights, then set up an appointment with an admitting physician.

“You’ll have a full hour with the doctor,” he said. “Take advantage of it.”

Getting blood drawn was another surprise. The private lab my insurance company made me use has a rock-solid 30-minute wait. The VA got me out in seven minutes, and when I showed up for the physical that afternoon, the results were in the doctor’s computer. The private lab takes a couple of days.

The physical was the most complete I’ve had in years. The doctor took a family history, probing for things I might have forgotten. He reviewed my prescription meds, checking dosages and possible interactions. He scheduled me for a colonoscopy, an Agent Orange screening, a dermatological exam for a suspicious mole—“You need to start wearing long sleeves. No more T-shirts”—and wrote official VA scrip for official VA drugs.

At the pharmacy, expecting to wait while a government slacker contemplated my digoxin, I passed my ID card under a scanner. Before I could find a seat, a clerk called, “Mr. Farley? You can pick up your meds at the next window.”

Already? There must be two Farleys.

Indeed not: A pharmacist checked my ID, handed over a sack and turned away. When he glanced back and saw me still standing there, he asked if he could do something more.

“Uh … do you need money?”

“No sir. You’re all set.”

And it’s free. So if you’ve been wondering where your tax dollars are going, here’s the answer: Up my digestive system on the end of a fiber optic next week. If this is socialized medicine, bring it on.