Vet says he nearly operated on himself when VA wouldn't pay medical bill

BURLINGTON, Mass. — A New Hampshire veteran was nearly forced to operate on himself after he says the Department Veterans Affairs refused to pay his medical bill.

It was a simple accident that landed John Irish in the hospital with a deep cut from a power tool. And he says it's not the hospital's fault he was denied service for that wound unless he paid cash.

He blames a broken federal system that stuck him with the bill.

“I looked down and there was a piece of my finger missing,” Irish told Boston 25.

A former Army National Guard solider and longtime EMT, Irish has seen his share of injuries and the bloodied thumb from a table saw didn't faze him.

What did cut deep was what happened next at Lahey Medical Center at his appointment for stitches removal.

“They handed me a slip of paper saying, ‘we are going to have to have you sign this, because the VA says they're not going to pay the bill,” he said.

Irish receives benefits through the Veterans Affairs Choice program, which allows vets to access private care amidst lengthy wait times at VA medical facilities.

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Irish says Veterans’ Choice has refused to pay for other bills and this was the final straw.

“I thought it was about time the VA of New England got exposed for what it's doing on this Choice program,” he said.

Irish threatened to remove his own sutures, in his home, live on social media. Within hours, the VA agreed to pay for the procedure.

“It's totally disgusting that they have to threaten, beg or borrow to get medical treatment,” he said.

Lahey showed Boston 25 medical records that indicate last week, the hospital received a call from the Manchester VA stating about the sutures procedure. The VA also requested a follow-up physical for later this year.

But late Tuesday afternoon, a VA spokesperson told Boston 25, "a review of our records show there was no prior contact or authorization regarding Mr. Irish.

She also said, "no care or payment had been denied."

But Irish says any veteran who is stuck with the bill, or the red tape that comes with it, is a rejection of their service to their country.

“The VA is required under the constitution to supply the veterans with the best medical care in the country, bar none. And realistically, we get the worst medical treatment in the world,” said Irish.

A spokesperson for Lahey tells me they're committed to providing quality service to all veterans and that any vets having trouble should contact them directly.

"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, said in a statement. "Caring for veterans is our primary mission; administrative issues should never stand in the way of veterans receiving high quality care."

A spokesperson for Lahey Health sent Boston 25 the following statement:

"Lahey Health is committed to providing high quality health care to all of our patients, including veterans. We recognize that navigating federal health care programs can be complicated. Any veteran having difficulty accessing care from a Lahey Health physician should contact us directly.”