Clinic facilities

Residents Advocate for a Permanent VA Clinic in Lewis County

By Owen Sexton /owen@chronline.com

At a town hall meeting Wednesday night at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis, members of the Puget Sound (VA) Veterans Affairs office gathered with a handful of residents from across Lewis County to discuss how veterans of the county can access VA care. although there is no local clinic.

According to Puget Sound VA Health Care System Executive Director Dr. Thomas Bundt, the primary reason for the Chehalis Clinic’s closure was high patient care costs. It was located at the Lewis County Mall before it closed last year.

“With an annual price of $4 million, the spend per patient on this contract was actually the highest in the entire country. Since August, our mobile medical unit has been here treating patients locally,” Bundt said.

The VA has recently opened new clinics in other areas, inincluding Edmonds and Pyyallup. Bundt added that talks have been held for a clinic in Longview.

Mobile Medical Unit Operations Manager Deborah Archer broke the choice to close the Chehalis Clinic.

“The contract price was so high that we couldn’t renew that contract,” Archer said.

She said when the VA Clinic in Chehalis closed in October 2021, about 3,400 veterans were receiving care there. Around 3,000 chose to be transferred to the clinic in Olympia, while around 400 chose to find health care within their own community. One of the main reasons is the distance many people in Lewis County have to travel to get to the Olympia Clinic.

Archer said around 2,000 of the veterans fell within the standard 30-minute drive time to get to the Olympia clinic and another 1,000 had to travel more than 30 minutes to receive treatment.

Another option is telehealth conferences. The VA would provide tablets for veterans to use to program and participate.

Despite the transfer of veterans to the Olympia Clinic and the weekly deployment of the Mobile Medical Unit, many of those present still felt that helping veterans receive medical care was not enough.

Heidi Palmer, veterans services officer for Lewis County Public Health and Human Services and an Army veteran, said about 10% of the county’s population is made up of veterans and that many are older and live in rural areas, telehealth conferencing was not a viable option.

“With our fairly large senior community for veterans, it’s not really going to be very accessible, especially in East County. If you’ve ever been to Randle, Morton, that area, reception doesn’t exist so iPads won’t work. A lot of them don’t even know how to use their smartphones, so that’s a huge problem,” Palmer said. “Getting an iPad, for an older person who doesn’t like computers and has to rely on their grandchildren or great-grandchildren to run their phone, there has to be some sort of alternative method.”

According to Archer, the VA provides training resources to help veterans learn to use tablets.

Palmer also referred to a rumor that had been circulating that veterans who chose to use the mobile medical unit during his visit to Chehalis were subsequently dropped by their original VA primary care provider.

“Our veterans who are served by the mobile medical unit are still registered at Olympia. Our mobile medical unit has a different provider than they may have had at Olympia, so they can choose to stay with the provider at Olympia or to be part of the mobile medical unit with the provider that is assigned to that unit,” Archer said. “Also, when veterans are assigned to the mobile medical unit, they have the full range of services to Olympia, so the supplier who comes here every Wednesday also works in Olympia so they have services in both places with the same supplier.”

Randle resident and Marine Corps veteran Jack Kerr raised several other issues, including the apparent need for referrals to be seen at the Mobile Medical Unit and long wait times for veterans trying to call the VA.

“We were told you had to have a referral from your VA medical team to get an appointment on the bus, and it took some of them a long time. Another thing is that the VA phone system needs a lot of work,” Kerr said. “Most older veterans, about 15 minutes on hold is their limit and then they hang up. I spoke to a lady who was on hold for over six hours. A friend of mine who has more patience than me was on hold for two hours and 15 minutes.

He added that a member of U.S. Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office was recently able to recruit 25 more people to handle phone calls, but from what he heard wait times really haven’t changed. . Kerr also reiterated that the lack of internet in rural areas was a major problem for many.

He said from what he was told that the mobile medical unit could only treat 8 patients a day without an appointment.

Lewis County Commissioner Lee Grose added that he was disappointed with wait times for veterans trying to get consultations or appointments, which VA officials say is getting worse. is produced for a variety of reasons, including lack of staff and community providers.

“I can pick up the phone tomorrow and call Swedish Hospital and have an appointment on Tuesday to see a doctor. I did so I know it’s true, and you say it takes 58 days from when a veteran first makes contact until maybe they can get an appointment you if all goes well, that’s totally unacceptable,” Grose said. “I’m sorry, it’s completely unacceptable, when I, as an ordinary citizen, can make an appointment with my doctor at the Swedish hospital in five days and you are going to make an appointment (for a veteran ) if he can possibly get on the phone, to community care so he can speak to someone to make an appointment to get a consultation, and he still has a minimum of 58 days until he has his appointment.

Another veteran in attendance who served in both the Navy and the Arizona National Guard, Christopher Reese, shared his own personal experience trying to get health care through the VA in the county. of Lewis.

“You said your minimum wait time for people waiting for community care was about six months? It’s wrong, and I can tell you it’s wrong. I moved here in August 2020 and am still waiting for mental health care,” Reese said.

He said he was ashamed that he had to continue using the VA.

“Your VA clinic is unwilling to do anything to help me and unwilling to continue to provide me with the proper medical care that I deserve. I am a recovered opiate addict. Guess who got me addicted? The VA. I have left the Navy in 2006 and the doctor gave me opioid pills like they were candy. I got a three-month supply every time from 2006 to 2009,” Reese said. asked to quit opioids and was ostracized by the Phoenix VA health system. I said I was making it all up in my head and the only reason I fired a doctor was because I was looking for pills. I’m sorry, I was asking to stop taking pills.

His disability kept him from working at all, which also didn’t help his mental health during his 16-year battle with the VA in Arizona and Washington, he said.

“I will never be able to work a day in my life again and I cannot bear it. I’d rather have a ball here than not be able to be a productive member of society. I have been waiting for mental health care for two years. Two years, and I’ve been waiting for a follow-up appointment since May for my back. I have excruciating pain every day. Do you all know what arachnoiditis is? That’s what I suffer from. I live with a condition where scar tissue tears my spinal cord,” Reese said.

He said he contacted every representative he could think of, but got only fleeting political responses. VA officials at City Hall took Reese’s information in an attempt to remedy his situation.

“I left the Navy in 2006 and I left the Arizona National Guard in 2009 and since then I’ve done nothing but fight you. Fight and fight and fight- you to the point where I gave my doctor an ultimatum just a few weeks ago He’s got a year, a year to find something I can live comfortably in or I either kill myself or they cut my legs off” , said Reese.