Veterans Share Stories, Ideas About Health Care Services
Tim Wirasnik, of Charlestown, tells U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., of his difficulty getting claims processed in the VA system and the challenges of getting and keeping appointments during a meeting at the White River Junction VA Medical Center yesterday. “You set appointments six to eight months out,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, let alone six to eight months out.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Sanders, chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Veterans Affairs, responds to a question during yesterday’s meeting. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
After speaking about the Veterans Affairs health care system, Allen Nickerson, left, and Victor Pontbriand, both residents of The Veterans’ Place Inc. in Northfield, Vt., take a break from the meeting. Nickerson, a Marine who served in the final year of the Vietnam War and in Beirut, said he left the Boston health care system to come to the White River Junction VA. “That’s how good they are,” he said. Pontbriand served 16 years in the Army and was a tanker in the Gulf War. “I like the VA. They’re taking good care of me,” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
White River Junction — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the longtime politician who now leads the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, began a one-day tour of VA facilities yesterday in White River Junction, fielding questions and suggestions from veterans from both Vermont and New Hampshire.
They were suggestions he was happy to take, as was a panel of VA Medical Center officials who joined him on the dais.
“This is your VA,” Sanders said. “What makes this institution different than any other is this is yours. To make it work well, we need your ideas.”
And he received them, often personalized accounts about veterans’ health care experiences from some of the approximately 80 people who attended the town-hall style meeting.
Several of the veterans who spoke brought up the VA’s slowness in processing claims, a common thread in stories that then touched on other issues, from mental health programs to a clinic for women veterans to the problem of veteran homelessness.
“One of the problems that I’ve seen with the claims is you get your initial decision, and it’s either denied or it’s under-rated,” said Tim Wirasnik, of Charlestown, N.H., who said he has had a disability claim in the system since 2009. “And you have to file an appeal, so you go from the top of the pile back down to the bottom of the pile.”
It’s an issue that has entered the national conversation in recent months, as a bipartisan group of senators has urged President Obama to work to end the backlog of unanswered claims. So yesterday, Sanders stated his goal, and that of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki: to digitize the VA’s claims processing system so that by 2015 all claims filed by veterans would be processed in 125 days with 98 percent accuracy.
“We do not believe that is acceptable for anybody, for any veteran, to put in a claim and wait one, two years for it to get processed,” Sanders said.
Overall, though, feedback from the assembled veterans was largely positive, and many who spoke started by lauding the VA care they had received in the past, often at the White River Junction facility, before pivoting to their grievances.
Michael Currier, of Windsor, stood up and began his remarks by noting his experiences in the mental health wing of the facility. “I think it’s an awesome department here,” said Currier, an Iraq veteran who served with the Army National Guard in the mid-2000s.
But then the asked: “Is there anything that you can do, at your level, to make drawing doctors in a rural VA more competitive?”
Deb Amdur, the director of the White River Junction VA, acknowledged challenges in recruiting doctors — psychiatrists especially — but said the facility received permission at a national level to raise salaries for incoming psychiatrists, and is also attempting to use Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and surrounding facilities as resources.
One veteran said work hours prevent him from attending mental health clinics at the VA, and officials noted a new clinic that will start in August and run on Saturday mornings.
Another noted a lack of exit plans for veterans who are put on prescription medicine, in order to avoid drug dependence while still minimizing pain, and Amdur said a “pain specialist” was brought on staff in the past year to help with that balancing act.
Earlier, Doug Barney, of Randolph, stood up from his chair in the back of the room. After saying he knew veterans who refuse to use VA services because they mentally connect it to the Army, with which they are disillusioned, he launched into an emotional story about his dealings with a disability rater at the VA who he said was insensitive and didn’t take into account certain problems from which he suffered.
“I think, to be honest with you, a rater that rates you for disability should have experience in the problems that the veterans have had,” said Barney, 71.
“You ran into someone who was clearly insensitive and did not do a good job,” Sanders responded.
“In general, I think most veterans, in my experience, think we have a pretty good staff here. But it’s not perfect.”
The last sentence was an oft-repeated refrain that slightly bothered Wirasnik, who joined a line of veterans waiting to give and receive contact information to Sanders’ aides following the 90-minute meeting.
“I think he was a little too quick to defend the VA and some of its physicians,” Wirasnik said. “We all know here — at least with this facility — that they keep doing a good job, because we’re still here.”
He went on to say that the veterans there understood the system was imperfect, and as such “we’re telling you want you need to improve.”
Several veterans said after the meeting that they appreciated Sanders, who they saw as pro-veteran, coming out to the VA and listening to their requests before heading to similar meetings in Brattleboro and Bennington.
“When you walk in the door, the job of the facility should be your health,” Sanders had said at the beginning of the meeting. “Your health. That’s what it is.”
Jon Wolper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.