U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, left, speaks at a congressional hearing in Roswell Wednesday regarding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Pictured on the right is U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. (Jeff Tucker Photo)
Some veterans who attended a congressional field hearing in Roswell Wednesday said they heard a lot a talk about improvements to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but were waiting for results.
The congressional field hearing chaired by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., became heated when Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, asked about the wait time for medical appointments for New Mexico’s veterans.
Officials from the VA said the average wait time for New Mexico veterans seeking a primary care consultation is 47 days. The average wait time for a New Mexico veteran to see a mental health professional is 41 days, and the average wait time to see a specialist is 64 days, the VA officials testified.
Dr. Jaime Robbins of the VA said the wait times are for primary perspective new patients, prompting Miller to object to the terminology.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Miller said. “What the hell is a primary perspective?”
Miller said the VA officials were changing the metrics and speaking in esoteric terms only known to VA officials.
“All we want to know is how long it takes a vet to see a doc, period,” Miller said.
U.S. Reps. Steve Pearce, R-Hobbs, and Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, also participated in Wednesday’s congressional field hearing at the Roswell Convention & Civic Center.
About a hundred veterans attended, some of whom told the Daily Record afterward that improvements to the Veterans Administration would speak louder than words.
“It was a lot of talking,” said Frank Carrillo, of Roswell, a U.S. Army veteran. “Hopefully, there will be some results.”
Jimmy Montoya, of Roswell, a National Guard veteran of Operation Desert Storm, said he was a little frustrated by the lack of solutions.
“A lot of talking, not productive answers,” Montoya said.
John Hernandez, of Roswell, said it’s hard getting beyond VA receptionists on the telephone to talk with actual medical providers.
“My only comment is I’d like to see experienced officials taking care our needs rather than staff,” Hernandez said “They are telling us what our needs are and then hanging up on us.”
Roswell veteran and Daily Record columnist John Taylor was the first witness at Wednesday’s field hearing. Taylor said already long waits for VA health services are exacerbated in rural areas.
“Being in a rural, desert community, systemic problems encountered throughout the country are greatly intensified in southeastern New Mexico,” Taylor testified.
Taylor said he has written about veterans issues in the newspaper for nine years, making both Democrats and Republicans uncomfortable.
“However, the majority of my rants have now shown to be true,” Taylor said. “Like so many other public-forum veterans’ advocates are asking, why did it take the recent deaths of so many of us to prove what we advocates have been claiming for so many years was true?”
Taylor said veterans that have died waiting for VA medical care were victims of administrative games played by VA leaders.
“We all know now how invalid the VA denials were, are still are,” Taylor said.
Richard Moncrief, a veterans service officer for the New Mexico Department of Veterans Affairs, said there is a shortage of skilled mental health counselors in southeast New Mexico.
“Why do we as veterans have to drive 200 miles to get the medical attention, in any direction?” Moncrief asked.
Dawn Tschabrun, chief executive officer of Lovelace Regional Hospital-Roswell, said a new pilot program that allows veterans to receive VA-funded care locally from non-VA facilities is working. Tschabrun said appointments for the veterans were scheduled within five days from the time of notifications.
Tschabrun said Lovelace would provide treatment to nine veterans by the end of the week as part of the pilot project.
“Lovelace stands ready to come to the table and discuss the needs of veterans in Roswell and southeast New Mexico to eliminate travel to Albuquerque so that veterans can be seen at home,” Tschabrun said. “We have qualified, competent care providers from physicians to nurse practitioners right here in Roswell that are willing and able to serve our veterans.”
Tschabrun’s overture drew the biggest applause from veterans at the field hearing.
Miller said the pilot project is opposed by some veterans groups, such as the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
“They think this is the first step in trying to rip the VA apart,” Miler said. “They need to listen to you, the veterans, who have to drive hours to access care and understand what you’re having to go through.”
Miller said the hope is some veterans will like the pilot program and receive care locally, while others will choose traditional VA care at a VA site. Miller said timely and quality medical care for veterans is the goal, whether in a VA setting or not.
“This entire process is in no way an attempt to tear apart the VA brick by brick,” Miller said. “We’re trying to help supplement what they already do with local providers, local facilities, because it’s better for the veteran, it’s better for taxpayers. They don’t have to pay for mileage to Albuquerque and putting somebody up only to get there and find out your appointment has been canceled and you’ve got to turn around and come back tomorrow, or the next week, or whatever it may be.
“A lot of things are going to change. This is a finite program. It was originally designed because of the wait lists that are out there today, but the intent is that it will carry on.”
Tschabrun said the bottom line is patient care, whether from a public or private sector provider.
“If either side fails to do that, we’ve let the patient down in my opinion,” she said.
Pearce said the VA has good personnel, but also serious systemic flaws.
A second panel of VA officials testified after Taylor, Moncrief and Tschabrun.
Elizabeth Freeman, the interim director of the Veterans Integrated Service Network, testified that 75,000 New Mexicans are enrolled with the VA and receive services at various VA centers across the state.
Miller said it is apparent the VA wants to grow itself to the detriment of veterans. As an example, he said VA officials propose building new facilities rather than extending hours at current facilities.
“Veterans need to be able to get the care they need, when they want to get it, where they want to get it,” Miller said.
Freeman conceded there’s a culture at the VA to keep medical treatment in-house.
“We will continue to focus on improving veterans’ access to care,” Freeman testified. “Our location presents unique challenges with regard to distance, culture and constrained health care markets. Our rural health programs are robust and we will continue to strive to serve veterans in rural areas.”
Pearce said the pilot program allowing veterans to receive compensated care from local private medical providers is “buzzing around this part of the state.”
Freeman said there are still internal VA issues to be worked out.
“Our culture won’t change overnight,” Freeman said.
“Your veterans are telling you what they need,” Miller said. “You’ve got to change. The veteran is sacred, the VA is not.”
John Taylor of Roswell testifies Wednesday at a congressional field hearing in Roswell regarding veterans’ issues. Taylor, a columnist for the Daily Record, said he has been sounding the alarm for years about inadequate medical treatment for veterans. (Jeff Tucker Photo)