National veterans’ advocate Christopher Neiweem was back in his hometown of Chicago on Jan. 23, when he came down with a severe flu that lasted for more than a day, and headed to the nearest 24/7 Department of Veterans Affairs emergency room. But while standing outside in the cold and drenching rain, Neiweem found to his shock that he could not gain entrance to the ER.
“The one time I need the emergency room at the VA, the very system I spend supporting left me out in the cold sick, tired, and defeated,” Neiweem told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
He had woken up vomiting and in a cold sweat that morning at 4 a.m. His girlfriend noticed he was in severe pain, and so finally he decided to get help. After calling a car service, he arrived in bad shape at the Jesse Brown VA hospital in Chicago, the closest facility to his location. It was just after 5:30 a.m.
But the door to the hospital was shut when he arrived. The lights were off. According to Neiweem, there was no sign of any activity inside the building on Damen Avenue.
He hit the call button on the door repeatedly, which rang again and again with no response. The button is connected to the VA police on the first floor.
At 5:54 a.m., he called the national veterans’ crisis line. Neiweem said that the woman who answered told him that both the hospital and emergency department were closed, adding that because she was in Ohio she didn’t understand how she was supposed to even help him.
Neiweem had never even heard of an ER being closed, but had no reason to doubt the information she gave, especially since the look of the hospital appeared to corroborate what she said. He was angry, frustrated and choking back tears because of the pain.
He limped over to Cook County Hospital and proceeded to wait three hours before seeing a doctor and receiving a bill.
Neiweem, who has worked for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, as well as other veterans’ groups, has previously testified before Congress about health care access issues, including the problem of veterans languishing on endless wait lists.
VA public affairs officer Michael McAleer confirmed to TheDCNF that the door on the Damen Ave. hospital entrance has a sign that says, “Doors will be closed from 8:30 p.m. – 5:30 a.m. daily. For entry press button on wall.” McAleer also said that the closure of an emergency room would be astonishing, given the fact that West Virginia saw 40 inches of snow, and even then the emergency rooms stayed open.
But according to Neiweem, he arrived at the hospital after 5:30 a.m., and the doors were still closed.
What’s more, the call button went unanswered repeatedly and a VA employee said over the phone that both the hospital and emergency room department were closed. McAleer said that records indicate the emergency room had five patients at the time, but said the door buzzer was definitely broken that day.
“It will be fixed,” McAleer said. “The buzzer will actually be replaced with a direct dial telephone to the emergency room and to the police. Additional signage is going to be put in place. A lot of good things have come out of this. We thank the veteran for bringing that to our attention.”
While construction of a new button is underway, the door to the emergency room will be open 24 hours a day with a police officer standing guard. McAleer added that the department will step in and cover the medical cost incurred by the veteran at Cook County Hospital.
“It only makes sense that the VA would be responsible for any bill the veteran has received,” McAleer said. “Between the door being locked, the buzzer not working, and the information that the clinics or hospital were closed, the VA is ready to assist that veteran in making sure it doesn’t become a financial burden.”
Francesca Collins contributed to this report.
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