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Daughter: Vietnam vet waited and waited, only to die before getting VA appointment

By Drew Griffin, Nelli Black, Scott Bronstein and Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 9:04 PM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
  • Pedro Valdez repeatedly tried, failed to get appointments with Phoenix VA, his daughter says
  • He ended up being hospitalized before seeing a VA doctor; he died in January
  • The VA hasn't responded to this specific claim, but is looking into general allegations
  • Valdez's daughter: The VA "kicked him when he was down, when he needed them"

(CNN) -- Pedro Valdez, a Vietnam veteran, wanted help. And he knew where to get it -- through the Phoenix VA -- or so he thought.

Again and again, starting in December 2012, Valdez would try to schedule with -- and would even show up to see -- doctors at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities in Arizona about his shortness of breath, according to his daughter. He thought he had gotten confirmed appointments; even toting cards with a specific date and time.

"He'd have the card in hand, go to check in, and they'd tell him, 'Mr. Valdez, you don't have an appointment in the computer. We have no idea what you're talking about," his daughter Priscella Valdez told CNN.

In October 2013, Pedro Valdez showed up at his daughter's house after going in for another appointment that never happened. His daughter set out then to make sure Valdez had a firm time in the VA computers, not just written down on a card. The next available slot he could get, after all that effort, was in three months, on January 6, 2014, according to his daughter.

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Pedro Valdez never made it.

On New Year's Eve 2013, he struggled for breath and was rushed to a private hospital. Valdez was diagnosed with acute respiratory failure; "he was only breathing at 50%," according to his daughter. The next day, he was in intensive care.

And six days later -- on January 7, a day after he was to finally see a doctor at the Phoenix VA -- he was dead. He was 66.

Priscella Valdez remembers her dad as a man who "made it out of a gruesome, gruesome, gruesome war," who dutifully worked in construction, who raised three children on his own and who never put himself first. More than anything, she remembers him as her "best friend."

She believes that the system that was supposed to care for him -- a man who'd risked his life for his country -- instead let him down.

"They took a man and broke him down and kicked him when he was down, when he needed them," Priscella Valdez said. "... These people who were supposed to take care of him are able to live freely."

The Valdez family is not the first to levy accusations against the federal agency charged with overseeing health care and benefits of veterans and their dependents.

CNN first reported six months ago about allegations of alarming shortcomings within the VA medical care system that, according to the VA, led to 23 deaths.

The VA's troubled history

The allegations include the possible destruction of a secret waiting list for care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System. There have also been claims of delayed care and cooked books at VA facilities nationwide.

The VA did not respond to a CNN request for a response to the Valdez family's specific allegation. And because of privacy laws, it is hard to know if Pedro Valdez was on anyone's list at the Phoenix VA, secret or not.

Phoenix officials deny there's a secret wait list

The VA's Office of the Inspector General is now investigating these various allegations at 26 VA facilities, and there have been hearings on Capitol Hill. Priscella Valdez has been among those speaking up; CNN first learned of her family's story after she appeared at a forum in Phoenix featuring Sen. John McCain in the wake of the scandal.

Much of the focus has been on the VA's management back in Washington, including calls for Secretary Eric Shinseki to be fired. Yet Priscella Valdez says no one looking into this matter can fully comprehend the frustration and the torment experienced by families like hers, who just want their loved ones looked after in a fair, responsible, humane way.

"I don't think anybody clearly understands what's going on," she says, "unless you actually lived it and you're going through it."

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