SCOTT CITY - Primus Suppes earned seven stars and a Purple Heart fighting with "Hell on Wheels" during World War II.
Until a few years ago, the Scott County farmer didn't talk about the experience much, but was honored to serve his country.
But the war hero - who has earned his medical benefits - thought he was going to have to spend hundreds of dollars each month on medication because he is too frail to travel 116 miles to the nearest veterans' medical center in Hays.
Suppes broke his back in April and is suffering from congestive heart failure.
"I called Hays and said, 'Dad can’t travel. What can he do?' " said Suppes' daughter, Nancy Gerstner of Garden City. "They said, 'Too bad.' "
Two different people, in fact, she said, told her the same thing - that her father would lose his medication benefits if he did not come to Hays for his annual physical. They did give him a three-month extension, she said.
His medications total about $476 a month, and while he could handle the cost, her father told her, "I served my time, and it is my benefit."
Suppes, however, will get his benefits, thanks to the help of Congressman Tim Huelskamp, she said.
After feeling like she was getting nowhere, Gerstner called the Republican representative's office asking for help. Huelskamp, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee who has long supported an overhaul of the VA health care system, made a call Tuesday to Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center's acting chief of staff, Dr. Jim Parker.
"We have to solve this situation," Huelskamp told The News Tuesday afternoon. "It is just wrong to make a 94-year-old man travel to wherever they were going to send him.
"You shouldn't have to call your congressman to move past something that doesn't make sense," he added.
Gerstner said while her father will have a consultation at the nursing home soon, it doesn't solve the problem of two other World War II veterans living with him in Scott City, or the countless other aging veterans living in rural America.
"I'm after access for all veterans, not just my dad," she said, calling the current rules a "duplication of services."
Bill in Congress
Gerstner is hopeful a bill that could be approved in Washington before the August recess will help her father and others who served alongside him.
Huelskamp is a co-sponsor of the “Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014,” which passed through the House Wednesday. The 420-5 vote sends the bill, which overhauls the VA health care system, to the Senate, where approval is expected by Friday.
Huelskamp, who voted yes to the legislation, gave a speech on the House floor Wednesday in support of measures in the bill and discussed Suppes' situation, along with what he's heard from across his district.
"They shared how they are required to travel hundreds of miles for simple medical tests or renew their prescriptions - all the while driving pasts dozens of local hospitals and other health care providers," he stated to fellow lawmakers.
"Just like Medicare or Tricare, veterans should have the choice to schedule their own appointments and pick their own doctors in their own communities," Huelskamp also said.
The bill allows veterans in rural areas or who have waited on the VA for more than 30 days the option to stay in the VA system or receive their care closer to home. And, Huelskamp told The News, one of the bigger portions of the proposal’s funding would go toward creating a way for veterans to get care through private health care providers for certain reasons, including if they live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility.
Huelskamp said one Big First constituent told him he had to drive more than 300 miles from his home in Oberlin to Wichita for a shingles vaccination "when he could have went to the Norton hospital 30 miles away from where he lived. It makes sense."
Meanwhile, a man in Syracuse, which is roughly 100 miles from Dodge City's VA center and 250 from Wichita's, had to drive three times in 10 days for treatment at a VA hospital, Huelskamp said.
Ndidi Mojay, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said serving veterans in the best way possible is a priority. She said veteran situations are looked at on a case-by-case basis. The VA can provide transportation to the closest clinic or, for some cases, offer tela-health, she said. According to information she provided, the department also has a pilot mobile unit project it wants to expand.
Moreover, in some cases, the VA will recommend a care provider in the veteran's community, with the cost being reimbursed to the VA.
"Non-VA Medical Care" is typically authorized if a veteran is unable to access VA health care facilities, if demand exceeds VA health care capacity, to satisfy patient wait-time requirements or because of a specialized resource a patient might need, according to information supplied by Mojay.
Also, according to the information, the VA implemented a pilot project in five areas of the country, including Pratt. Called Project Access Received Closer to Home, Mojay said it's one more tool for veterans who might travel long distances for services. If the project is proven successful, department officials will ask Congress for more funding of the program, called ARCH.
Huelskamp said the bill does extend the ARCH program, which has proven successful in Kansas. It would cost $10 billion for veterans to see doctors outside the VA systems.
A war hero
Huelskamp said he understands the issue, coming from a family of eight veterans - many of whom served in World War II.
"We need to make this work – we will make this work," he said.
Gerstner wants it to work, too, for the others in her father's situation who likewise served their country and don't have an advocate to speak up for them.
Just a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack, Suppes received a draft notice. He was enlisted into the U.S. Army on March 22, 1942 - the first in his family to report to duty for World War II. He was a 22-year-old who had known only one way of life - farming. But he got on a bus with other drafted men from the area to go to Fort Riley, then eventually Fort Knox. He went to mechanic school before he was shipped overseas as part of the 2nd Armored Division.
As part of the division, or Hell on Wheels as it became known, Suppes would be part of the effort that invaded Sicily, where he was injured, as well as fought at Normandy. He also was part of the Battle of the Bulge.
When the war ended, he returned to the High Plains to do what he knows best - farming. His son, Ron, and Shayne, a grandson, continue to farm the land in Scott and Lane counties.
"I just know things can be better," Gerstner said. "We can’t accept the norm right now."