We published a story today about the malicious treatment of veterans with chronic pain by the Alaska VA and one Dr Cynthia Joe who is responsible.

The Alaska Watchman was contacted by a group of surgeons who are at their wits end with the Alaska VA and are drafting a class action lawsuit against the VA because all other avenues have been exhausted.

First, a little back story. When a veteran serves this country, and is terribly injured, he or she is often saddled with a life sentence of pain. There is standard of care for Veterans trying to live with debilitating pain that starts with physical therapy and exercise, progresses to pain meds and injections and then surgery. In some cases nerve and musculoskeletal damage is so extensive even surgery cannot fix the problem, but thanks to modern technology, there is one last almost magical hail mary: spinal cord stimulation.

A small device, the size of a matchbook is connected to leads that lay along your spinal cord and basically scramble the pain signal from your problem area. A nerve can only carry so many signals at once, and this device confuses the nerve impulse with high frequency electrical stimulation. If you’ve ever had a dentist wiggle your cheek as they give you the shot in the gums, it’s so you don’t feel the pain of the needle, and a similar principle.

Up until a few years ago, the VA worked with local doctors who would take veterans through the standard of care from beginning to end and when a pain doctor, working WITH a veteran, determined that Spinal Cord Stim was necessary, it was what that veteran received.

This is a unique proposition as surgeries go, because you can actually “try it before you buy it. The leads can be temporarily inserted for a trial week with the device taped to the OUTSIDE of you, to see if it will even help, and IF it helps as it very often does in dramatic fashion, then both patient and pain doc can proceed with a permanent install of the device, everything under the skin like a pacemaker, and you KNOW it’s gonna work.

That is the standard of care for every VA office in the Nation… except Alaska.

If you’re a veteran who has served this country and happen to live in Alaska, you’re screwed. You WILL NOT GET this tech past the iron curtain of VA denial and Dr. Cynthia Joe, who is not even a pain doctor. She’s a geriatric specialist. She will give no reason, no defense, your only choice is a sentence to the status of pill billy. Hydrocodone for life. You get pills and you get pills, and that’s ALL you get, even if you don’t want them.

We asked the VA about this, and Shocker they gave us garbage non-answers and claimed they installed 16 of these last year and 2 this year. They pointed the finger at TriWest, Puget Sound VA, etc. Everyone’s pointing the finger, but the buck stops with Dr Cynthia Joe at the Alaska VA.

We talked personally to every manufacturer of Spinal Cord Stim there is. All five companies. All five have stated unequivocally that for over two years, the Alaska VA has been a blanket no. Zero authorizations, zero hardware, despite the VA claiming in writing to the Watchman, that they authorize these all the time.

The surgeons who contacted us have worked most recently with a veteran named Ron Higgins, who had a horrible car crash, open book fracture of the pelvis AND his femur, who has proceeded through the standard of care and was told simply “no.” As a LAST STRAW, Dr Tom Grissom, of Algone Pain Center, paid for the trial AND the tech to see if it would work for Mr Higgins, who we spoke with. And it did. So much so, that to take the trial out brought this mountain of a man to tears as he recalled what it was like to put his own socks on and make his wife coffee for the first time in 8 long suffering years.

In the original article we post names and phone numbers for our federal delegation, as well as Dr Cynthia Joe’ office and her bosses. Don’t email, call them. Call them ALL.

Dr Tom Grissom, Algone, and the Surgery Center of Wasilla, paid for this man’s trial, and as expected – Dr Cynthia Joe said “nope, he only gets pills.” So Dr Grissom, out of his own pocket and because the results were so extraordinary and life changing for Mr Higgins, bought him the device and the Surgery Center comped the room to get it installed. They’re local heroes in my opinion, and to Dr Cynthia Joe, your decisions aren’t just incompetent or incorrect. They’re Malicious. Our vets deserve better and if there’s any justice in the world, YOU… should reverse this ridiculous policy or YOU should be out of a job.

The Alaska VA’s disgraceful treatment


  • Neil DeWitt says:

    Thanks for the article. As for the VA in Alaska we are always told pills are the answer. I for one think pills are a bandaid not a fix. I say fix me don’t just bandage me up. Let’s see if your article will change anything for our care at the VA. I’ll keep my fingers crossed but I almost know better!

  • Christian says:

    Local Anchorage Vet here. While we advocate for change Maybe we can get a fund raiser going for Ron’s surgery if he’s okay with that? I’d love to help with that.

    • Di says:

      Maybe a #gofundme would help so these issues for him are diminished and he can have the treatment and surgery he needs. I hope The Watchman would give an update on this.

    • Jenny says:

      His surgery has been already completed. Dr. Tom Grissom paid for surgery out of his own pocket to be able to give Ron his quality of life back!

  • Bullshit Detector says:

    The Anchorage VA needs serious new leadership.
    Perhaps put in leadership who are really interested in caring for vets. And, willing to listen and digest what their vets are telling them.

  • Joseph Wargacki says:

    Although I am not a Vet, I am acquainted with chronic pain and can vouch for how debilitating it is and how it affects every aspect of your life. The physical aspects of chronic pain are obvious but mental depression due to its effect on daily life is also a problem and needs addressing. Thank you for the article! Rev Joseph Wargacki

  • ASever says:

    Unfortunately for many vets in chronic pain, the VA’s answer is to kick them to the curb. My husband has been in chronic pain from injuries sustained in service to our country for many years. The VA originally did help him. They trialed him through every regiment possible to alleviate his pain to something tolerable. Physical therapy, electrical stimulation, steroid shots, you name it he tried it. Eventually he was given a regiment of pain medication that worked! He was comfortable and had a semblance of quality of life that he hadn’t had in years. Then the “opioid crisis” hit. The VA and the base hospital no longer would treat chronic pain patients, they were kicked out into a civilian community of doctors fearful to write any prescriptions for narcotic pain relief. My husband had been on the same dosage of meds for seven years, but all of a sudden it was too much! Doctor after doctor cited fear of losing their license and/or DEA raids and told him he had to get off all pain meds or get down to a level that was a joke.
    The VA and JBER washed their hands of chronic pain patients and that’s that. Hearing about Mr. Higgins being a mountain of a man brought to tears, when he was told the only relief he had found would be taken away, brings back a similar nightmare my husband faced. We have been fortunate to have found one brave doctor who will write the prescriptions my husband needs. However, there isn’t a civilian pharmacy in Alaska who will fill his meds…pharmacist’s apparently know better than the physician…ironically, JBER is the only pharmacy that will fill his meds.
    I’m glad Mr. Higgins found a doctor with a heart and who truly remembers why he became a doctor in the first place. However, there are many veterans who live in chronic pain that still need help, and some of them do need pain pills. Treatment should be a patient/doctor decision and what works best for each individual.
    I am grateful to see the Watchman posting articles about this subject. At least it educates the public to the nightmare veterans are facing every day. They deserve better!
    And to Neil DeWitt…sometimes pills are the answer once everything else has been exhausted. Each patient should be treated as an individual and their care based on a decision between them and their doctor. I don’t agree with throwing pills at everything any more than you do, but sometimes it’s all that works.

  • Michael Hughes says:

    God Bless Dr Tom Grissom! As for “Dr” Joe, what happened to the principle of “First, do no harm”? We need to pray for her conversion.
    I, too, live with cronic pain. Although I am fortunate that it not debilitating, I have found a substance called Kratom that has substantially helped reduce the pain; specifically the strain called White Vietnam. It is really cheap.
    The FDA tried to ban kratom several years ago but had to back off of doing so because 3 million people told them they had gotten off opiods by using Kratom.
    I did a LOT of research on this before using it including ethical companies to buy from (I use both.”Kraoma” and “Smart Kratom”. One of them may have changed their name but you can find it on the web. And since I did this several years ago, there may be other ethical companies that now sell it. You may be able to get samples before you buy. And, I bought a kilo.of the White Vietnam last year for $80! I divided it into small quantities and vacuum packed them. This will probably last me foe the rest of my life and beyond.

  • K. Novcaski says:

    From my little bit of research these are state jobs at Ak VA hospital. Dunleavy should be receiving a barrage of communications from the rest of us in response to this article. No excuse to not give our veterans good care.

  • K. Novcaski says:

    Okay I just sent my comments to Gov. Dunleavy to look into this and do his job to make sure our AK veterans get the care they need; our AK veterans who have given us all so much. Here is the link to email him.
    The more mail he gets the harder to ignore the problem.

  • Paul says:

    Dr. Jo has been the top Alaska VA doc for years. For a couple of years Alaska had a great VA director, Dr. Tim Ballard who is an MD and was ipso facto the top Alaska VA doctor; unfortunately the bureaucrats drove Dr. Ballard out of the VA, and now we are back to being stuck with Dr. Jo as the top VA doctor.
    Very sad as she is more of a bureaucrat than a real doctor as revealed in this video.