The erratic way Veterans Affairs deals with cancer patients who seek treatment at a nonprofit clinic in Roseburg frustrates the center’s director.
The VA sometimes requires Douglas County veterans to travel to VA hospitals in Portland or Seattle for lengthy and physically taxing treatments, which can separate them from friends and family for weeks.
Veterans who choose to be treated at the Community Cancer Center on Stewart Parkway sometimes are left hoping that Medicare or private insurance will provide the same level of coverage as would the VA.
“We constantly have patients coming in here saying their requests are being denied, and they’re being forced to go somewhere else,” the cancer center’s executive director, Mel Cheney, said. “We’ve met time and time again with the VA.
“It just doesn’t seem conscionable,” said Cheney, a Vietnam veteran. “I can understand the VA wanting to reduce costs as low as possible, but at some point you have to take into consideration what’s in the best interest of the patients.”
Roseburg VA officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
In a written statement, the Roseburg VA said that in the past year it has spent more than $1.7 million on cancer care for veterans who were unable to travel to another VA hospital for treatment.
Still, the VA acknowledged that it strives to treat patients within the VA system before sending them elsewhere. The VA said it considers several factors when evaluating whether veterans should be treated outside its system. The nature of the illness and availability of treatment are among those factors.
“We appreciate the challenge travel can create, and review each case individually to determine if the care can, and should be, provided at the Portland or another VA, or should be purchased locally,” the statement said.
Cheney and other cancer center employees say they’re exasperated with the VA’s inconsistency.
“They’ve referred several patients to us, but they won’t pay,” cancer center receptionist Kathy Heichel said. “We had a lady that had been referred with lung cancer. Two days later, we got a call from the VA saying she had to go to Portland. She doesn’t drive. She didn’t know how she would get there.”
When Cheney joined the cancer center in 2001, the clinic had a contract with the VA to treat veterans unable to travel to Portland or Seattle. But the cancer center hasn’t had a contract with the VA since 2009.
“At one point, they decided they wouldn’t contract to outside agencies,” the center’s director of financial services, Echo Peel, said. “When we were under contract, it worked well.”
Three years ago, the Roseburg VA referred Army veteran Leonard Woods, 81, of Winston to the Community Cancer Center and paid for his treatment for prostate cancer. He learned early this year the cancer had spread and again sought treatment at the cancer center, but this time the VA refused to pay, he said.
“It came out of the blue that the (VA) wouldn’t be able to pay for my treatment,” Woods said.
Woods said his private insurance paid for radiation treatment at the cancer center, but he now drives to the Portland VA every 15 days for chemotherapy.
Woods said he’s grateful for the excellent care he’s received from the VA for the past 20 years. Still, he said he’s concerned that the VA won’t cover cancer treatment available in Roseburg.
“It’s very inconvenient when we have such a good place here,” he said.
Douglas County Veterans Forum President Rick Sciapiti said that Roseburg VA Director Carol Bogedain has told him the hospital is seeking more funding to pay for treatment at the cancer center.
“I hope they can get this money, and it would help veterans to at least get some of their services here,” said Sciapiti, a Vietnam veteran and cancer survivor.
Six years ago, Sciapiti lived for three months in Portland while being treated for head and neck cancer at Oregon Health & Science University through a partnership with the Portland VA. “I didn’t mind doing it, but it could have been nicer,” he said.
The radiation treatments made him too sick to come home to Roseburg, he said.
“At first, I could go home for the weekends, but after the first couple of weeks I couldn’t travel. I would be throwing up the whole way,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, said his office has received complaints from veterans whose requests to be treated at the cancer center were denied by the VA.
It’s disheartening that the VA has been so strict about paying for cancer treatment in Douglas County, DeFazio said.
“They never seem to allow people to be treated locally,” he said.
DeFazio said he hopes the new Northwest regional director for the VA, Lawrence Carroll, will be more open to allowing veterans to be treated in Roseburg.
Carroll, who led the San Francisco VA hospital, replaced Susan Pendergrass, who retired last summer.
“We just want to know there’s flexibility there,” DeFazio said. “I think it’s time to take it up with the new regional director. There are exceptions where they can allow local treatment.”
Army veteran Arvin Cox, 79, of Roseburg said he’s grateful that the Roseburg VA discovered that he had lung cancer. But when the hospital referred him to the Community Cancer Center, he had to rely on Medicare to pay for treatment.
Cox, who is in remission, said he understands the VA has made a lot of cutbacks and can’t cover every ailment.
“A lot of things are not going to be covered,” he said. “I was upset, but then I wasn’t, because I understand the rules and regulations.”
Cox said he doesn’t expect the VA to pay because his time in the military didn’t give him cancer.
“I don’t have anything to blame this on,” he said. “I don’t have anything I can claim against the military that caused this.”
When Navy veteran Ronald Easter, 71, of Myrtle Creek found out he had liver cancer, the Roseburg VA referred him to the Portland VA hospital.
“I chose not to do it because it would be too costly when I’m on Social Security,” he said. “When I chose not to go to Portland, they said, ‘We won’t pay.’”
Easter, who is in remission after being treated at the Community Cancer Center, said the VA eventually paid for some of his treatment, but he had to rely on private insurance to cover the rest.
He said the experience left him disenchanted with the VA system.
“I’m avoiding going to the VA because it’s a hassle,” Easter said. “I have a medical discharge from the Navy. I should automatically be covered for everything. There shouldn’t be any questions from the VA, but there were.”
• You can reach reporter Inka Bajandas at 541-957-4202 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It just doesn’t seem conscionable. I can understand the VA wanting to reduce costs as low as possible, but at some point you have to take into consideration what’s in the best interest of the patients.”