Former Army National Guard soldier John Irish had cut himself badly in an accident with a table saw.
“I looked down and there was a piece of my finger missing,” Irish of Burlington, Massachusetts, told Boston 25 News on May 9.
As a long-time EMT, Irish was used to seeing household injuries like this one, and he took himself to get treatment at Lahey Medical Center, a nonprofit teaching hospital in the Boston suburbs. Everything went smoothly until it came time to have his stitches removed.
The care providers at Lahey handed Irish a slip and said, “We are going to have to have you sign this, because the VA says they're not going to pay the bill.” The hospital wouldn’t finish his procedure until he paid for it up front, in cash.
Irish is on the Veterans Affairs Choice program, which allows VA enrollees to seek care at a private community medical facility if they don’t have access to VA medical facilities, or if VA wait times prove excessive. It’s a program that President Trump has sought to expand as a release valve for overloaded VA medical centers.
Irish says this wasn’t the first time he’d had issues with the Choice program. In December 2015, he claims, a complication from a routine surgery left him $100,000 in debt, with VA refusing to pay for his care at Lahey.
“The VA is required under the constitution to supply the veterans with the best medical care in the country, bar none,” Irish said. “Realistically, we get the worst medical treatment in the world.”
So when the sutures on his finger became an issue, Irish decided to take things into his own hands. “I thought it was about time the VA of New England got exposed for what it's doing on this Choice program,” he said.
He threatened to remove the stitches and livestream the DIY procedure on social media, by himself. “Within hours,” Boston 25 reports, “the VA agreed to pay for the procedure.”
Lahey Medical Center showed Boston 25 medical records that indicate last week, the hospital received a call from the Manchester VA regarding the sutures procedure. It also requested a follow-up physical for him for later this year. But a VA spokesperson told the news station that no request for payment had ever been filed for Irish, and as a result, "no care or payment had been denied."
"We continue to work very closely with Veterans, community providers and importantly HealthNet to resolve any patient issues brought to our attention," Kristin Pressly, Veteran's Affairs spokesperson, told the station in a statement.
Irish, though, remains unimpressed. “It's totally disgusting that they have to threaten, beg or borrow to get medical treatment,” he said.