Oregon senators Wednesday asked the acting secretary of veterans affairs to immediately send emergency funding to the state’s VA medical centers to relieve long waiting times for patients seeking appointments.
Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden argue that the VA should pay particular attention to Oregon because a VA audit revealed some of the longest waiting times in the country are at VA centers in Roseburg, Portland and White City.
“We urge you to send immediate emergency funding to Oregon VA facilities to help ameliorate the unacceptably long wait times Oregon veterans face,” the senators wrote in a letter to Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson.
Gibson replaced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned May 30 in the face of allegations that veterans experience long waits for appointments and that VA officials concealed the waits by falsifying records.
The VA audit released Monday found 57,000 veterans, including 6,600 in Oregon, have been waiting for up to three months for appointments. The audit revealed that new patients at the Roseburg VA wait an average of 51 days to see a primary care provider and 47 days for a mental health appointment.
Douglas County Veterans Forum President Jim Little said today money alone won’t solve the VA’s problems.
“It’s just a start is all it is. They can’t assume that throwing money at it is going to take away the problem, because it is not,” Little said.
Little said real change will only occur if managers are held accountable for the long waits at the VA.
“They’ve got to start at the top,” he said.
The VA audit also found Roseburg VA patients must wait an average of 65 days for a specialty care appointment.
The audit found even longer waits at the Portland VA, where new patients had an average wait time of 80 days to see a primary care doctor. Portland’s waits ranked the fifth worst in the nation. Many Roseburg-area veterans are referred to the Portland VA for specialty care.
The former director of the Roseburg VA emergency department, Dr. Charlie Ross, said additional money may help, but the system won’t really change for the better until there is a “clean sweep” of management.
He said the Roseburg VA has difficulty recruiting doctors even when it has money to pay them because the morale is low — a problem for which he blames management.
“You could drop a lot of money into the Roseburg VA, but if you keep the current leadership structure, the current environment, it’s not going to change anything,” Ross said.
Roseburg VA officials say that the facility has difficulty recruiting new doctors to the area, which is a key factor in the long wait times veterans experience at the VA.
“Recruitment and retention in a highly rural area such as Roseburg continues to be challenging. We use all available incentives to attract high quality and professional staff into our system,” VA spokeswoman Carrie Boothe said this morning.
Merkley spokeswoman Martina McLennan said this morning the senator is aware that money alone will not solve the VA’s problems.
“The VA needs a culture shift and money to get veterans the care they need,” McLennan said.
The senators did not request in their letter a specific amount in emergency funding.
The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to enhance care within the VA system and make it easier for veterans to receive government-subsidized care outside the system.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that when fully in place, in about three years, the legislation would cost $50 billion a year.
The bill includes $500 million to speed up the hiring of more doctors and nurses.
The VA currently spends about $44 billion a year providing care to 8.4 million veterans, according to the CBO. Some 8 million more veterans are eligible for VA heath care and might be motivated to enroll if the system’s services improved, the CBO noted.
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.