PAULDING COUNTY, Ga. -- When George Geiger served in Vietnam, gunfire shot down his helicopter six times. He was wounded twice.
Forty-nine years later, the 71-year-old Purple Heart recipient is fighting to survive throat cancer and the bureaucracy of the Veteran Health Administration to get appropriate treatment.
This past summer, doctors at the Atlanta VA hospital broke the bad news. To treat his cancer, he desperately needed two treatments: radium, a form of radiation, and chemotherapy.
The VA approved Geiger to receive radium treatment at WellStar Hospital, less than a mile from his Paulding County home. When he asked to receive his chemotherapy treatments at the same hospital, the VA denied it.
Geiger says he was told he must have this chemotherapy administered at the Atlanta VA hospital, which can be an hour’s drive away or more.
"The doctor says, 'Well, what if you have a reaction to the chemo with the radium and pass out in 75/85 traffic? What’s gonna happen then?’” Geiger mused.
In July, Geiger called the 11Alive Investigators from inside a Paulding County hospital room asking for help.
11Alive Investigator Andy Pierrotti recorded an interview with Geiger on a cell phone, uploaded the video to YouTube, and then sent a link of the video to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Within 24 hours, the VA approved treatment near his home. That was 67 days after getting diagnosed.
Dr. David Bower is chief of staff at Atlanta’s VA Hospital. Bower admits poor communication contributed to the delays.
“We want to try to shorten the time for every patient between the initial diagnosis and the treatment, but it really depends on the individual's cancer," Bower told 11Alive.
Geiger wants to know why the VA didn’t initially set up both cancer treatments from the very beginning. Bower agrees.
“I think that [VA Secretary David J. Shulkin] is working hard to try to change that law to allow us to do that," Bower said.
Bower is talking about the Veteran’s Choice Program, originally passed by congress in 2014. The program is supposed to allow veterans to receive treatment from a local hospital if they cannot get an appointment in 30 days, live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility, or travel identified as an “excessive burden.”
The VA wants funding to expand on the excessive burden criteria to help more veterans, like Geiger.
Drew Early is an Atlanta attorney who specializes in veteran law. He agrees the VA should expand the Veteran’s Choice Program, but he doesn’t think more funding is the answer.
Since 2008, the VA’s budget has increased 85 percent, but Early believes it's been little improvement to patient care.
“So, I don’t think it’s about funding," he argued. "I think it’s about how the resources are managed."
Bower says the VA plans to open eight new health care facilities around metro Atlanta in the next few years, including Cobb County, which is underserved.
Geiger says chemotherapy and radium treatments have been effective. The lump on his throat is much smaller and he will soon be able to eat solid foods.
He’s grateful for the VA’s care, but he doesn’t believe veterans should be subjected to unneeded stress.
“A purple heart veteran, like myself, should not have to go to [a TV station] to get help,” Geiger concluded.