U.S. Rep. Greg Walden got an earful from local veterans after seeking their comments regarding experiences with the Veterans Affairs healthcare system.
At a roundtable event Saturday morning at Black Bear Diner in Medford, Walden shared progress in Congress on veterans' initiatives and heard from veterans' advocates about their experiences with the VA, which led to a litany of complaints about the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.
Alice Thomsen of Medford, who is with Disabled American Veterans, shared her experiences while undergoing outpatient treatment of her post-traumatic stress disorder at SORCC. She said appointments often were canceled while others were changed without proper notification. Among other challenges, Thomsen said, were layers of bureaucracy that required her to travel to Walla Walla, Wash., in order to meet with a psychiatrist for prescription medications.
With little input from her, Thomsen said, she was placed in an otherwise all-male PTSD group therapy.
"It's not comfortable for the men and it's not comfortable for me," Thomsen said.
David Harbolt of Medford said he struggles with PTSD-related mood swings. On top of challenges getting appointments, Harbolt said, he rarely meets with the same care provider from one appointment to the next.
"It's not a personal relationship," Harbolt said.
Boyd Sherbourne, a clinical psychologist who formerly worked at SORCC, was critical of the White City VA facility.
"As far as I'm concerned, the VA is absolutely broken," Sherbourne said.
He callied SORCC a "narcissistic organization" with leaders focused more on their own paychecks, benefits and retirement than helping veterans. That, he said, leads to a revolving door of health care providers.
"Healthy people and skilled people go," he said.
Ken Myres of Central Point, who said Sherbourne treated him for post-traumatic stress disorder at SORCC, told Walden that SORCC was opaque with them regarding Sherbourne's departure. He and his wife, Sharon Myres, run the Facebook page "Veterans Without a Voice."
"When are they going to say Dr. Sherbourne is not on vacation?" Sharon Myres asked Walden.
"You don't cure PTSD," Myres said after the meeting, stressing the importance of an ongoing relationship with a mental health specialist. "You manage it, but you don't cure it."
Others in the meeting criticized unnecessary bureaucracy at the upper levels of the VA that impact already difficult-to-fill positions. Some mentioned low pay as a reason providers leave.
Some, however, commended the local facility and staff. John Howard, a former Walden aide in the congressman's Medford office, said current SORCC director Philip Dionne is doing a "super job" coordinating with the community and nearby health centers. (Corrected)
On Monday, the U.S. House Rules Committee will meet to discuss the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act, a recently introduced bill intended to strengthen protections for whistleblowers, reform the disability benefits appeals process and place greater accountability on employees with performance issues.
Following the event, Walden said the veterans' "extremely important" feedback reflects a nationwide problem.
"You realize what the unmet need is," Walden said, adding that the frustration he heard from local veterans points to an acute issue. "We've got more work to do."
A draft is also in the works for the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act, which would restructure the Veterans Health Administration by separating the VA's payer and provider network. The intent is to address bureaucratic challenges tied to the current VA Choice system enacted in August 2014, which allowed veterans to see providers outside the VA for portions of their care.
After visiting an outside physician, however, veterans report that they often face long waits to complete parts of specialty care needs such as optometry or orthopedics.
Walden called the VA a "big organization trying to do the right thing," but touched on the need to integrate technologies common in the private sector as one way to better automate the scheduling of veterans' appointments, such as allowing a veteran to schedule appointments online. Walden also said the VA hiring process needs to be localized.
Walden also noted there has been progress made for veterans this year, such as the veterans' disability cost-of-living increase for 2017, which was passed into law July 22, and the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in February.
"Generally, when we don't fight you never hear about it," Walden said.
Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.
Correction: The article, which appeared in the Sept. 11 print edition, attributed favorable comments about the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City to the wrong former Walden aide. It was John Howard who commended the SORCC director's efforts to work with the community.