Updated Nov. 28 at 4:40 p.m.: This story has been updated to provide clarification about the Veterans’ Choice program.
Original story posted Nov. 25 at 8 a.m.
Thirty years ago Charles Nelson said he joined the Army to have a chance at a better life by fighting for his country. Decades later the Leander veteran said he had to battle the Veterans Affairs health care system just to get on the operating table.
Despite what he called years of “bureaucracy, red tape and paperwork,” Nelson had his much-needed second kidney replacement and is now helping fellow veterans have a voice in their health care.
“We have people that are in the hospital at the VA, and the transplant coordinators are seeing people dying from the choices that the VA is making [by]denying outside care,” he said.
Nelson served as a specialist in the Army from 1987-90 and said he planned to take advantage of the GI Bill to pursue a career in law enforcement after he left the Army. But those plans changed while he was stationed in South Korea for a year. He caught strep throat, which eventually led to kidney failure. He is now a 100 percent service-connected disabled veteran.
His sister Jennifer was an eligible donor, and on May 30, 2000, Nelson had his right kidney replaced.
Sixteen years later, Nelson’s left kidney failed, but his son Austin Coty Nelson was a match.
The transplant was initially approved through the Veterans’ Choice program, but the procedure had to be done at a VA hospital in either Nashville, Tennessee, or Portland, Oregon. However, the Nelsons were thrown a curveball one month before the procedure.
“We were denied [by the Veterans’ Choice program]because my son wasn’t a veteran,” Nelson said.
With his health failing, the Nelson family decided to do the transplant using Medicare, which picked up 20 percent of the cost. Community members also helped chip in for the cost of the operation, Nelson said. The family traveled to San Antonio for Nelson’s second kidney transplant on June 9, 2016.
“It didn’t make any sense to go off to Oregon or Nashville to do this when we could do it right there in San Antonio,” Nelson’s wife, Tamara, said.
The family is now taking the fight to the nation’s capital.
Last month the Nelsons were invited by U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, to Washington, D.C., to sit in on VA congressional hearings for the Veterans Transplant Coverage Act of 2017. The bill, sponsored by Carter, would require the VA to provide organ transplants to veterans from live donors even if the donor is not a veteran.
During the hearing Carter said Nelson was the inspiration for the bill.
“Mr. Nelson, [a]100 percent disabled service-connected veteran, served his country and ran into this roadblock,” he said. “That’s why we’re here today. They brought up what I thought was a common-sense, crazy thing that should be changed.”
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill Nov. 7 in what Nelson hopes is a first step to giving veterans more choices and control over their health care. The bill was referred to the committee of Senate Veterans’ Affairs on Nov. 8.
For Tamara the most important thing that others can do to help fix the issue is reach out to elected officials and voice concerns.
“It makes me extremely sad because our situation is already done; there’s nothing that the VA can help us with now,” Tamara said. “Our issue is seeing all of the veterans that are being denied, and the only reason we keep fighting is because people are listening to us.”
How to contact your elected officials
517 Hart Senate Office Bldg.
Washington, D.C. 20510
202-224-2934 • www.cornyn.senate.gov
Washington, D.C. 20510
202-224-5922 • www.cruz.senate.gov
Micheal T. McCaul, District 10
9009 Mountain Ridge Drive, Ste. 230
Austin, Texas 78759
512-473-2357 • https://mccaul.house.gov
Roger Williams, District 25
1005 Congress Ave., Ste. 925
Austin, Texas 78701
512-473-8910 • https://williams.house.gov
John Carter, District 31
1717 N. I-35, Ste. 303
Round Rock, Texas 78664
512-246-1600 • https://carter.house.gov