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April 16, 2014
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Guest column: Rural VA hospitals can run effective intensive care units

The latest installment of “Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center can’t have an intensive care unit and here are the reasons why” was the same old rhetoric that the veterans of Douglas County and Southwest Oregon have heard for the past five years.

Booz Allen Hamilton’s expert Dr. Ken Kizer and former undersecretary of the Veterans Health Administration was asked by Rep. Timothy Hutchinson, R-AR, at a congressional hearing proposing the 1996 Veterans Health and Eligibility Reform Act, “What guarantees there might be to ensure that hospital and VISN directors would not arbitrarily eliminate specialized services because of the high cost involved.” Dr. Kizer answered the committee and told them that oversight by stakeholders in the form of management assistance councils would be set up as oversight so this would never happen.

During the campaign to save the Roseburg VA hospital it was pointed out countless times that the stakeholder council was terminated by Network Director Dr. Susan Pendergrass. It can be said emphatically that she operated outside of the law, precisely in the way Kizer was questioned in Congress. Pendergrass ordered the closing of the Roseburg ICU, and received a $21,000 bonus that year. We’re told it’s about safety, I think it’s about cost saving and reduced services to veterans.

Oregon’s congressional delegation should demand that the Office of the Inspector General investigate who ordered the closing, and how it was done without input from our community.

Another point: I have never heard one single recommendation from the VA on how one would go about providing an ICU. For the past five years I’ve heard nothing but reasons why we can’t have an ICU at the Roseburg VA hospital.

Roseburg is considered rural when it comes to health care provisions, and the rural argument has been used to emphasize everything from low patient numbers, to the problems of recruiting and retaining physicians. I recently visited the office of rural health website looking for a model or something other communities with similar demographics use to provide ICU care. Lo and behold, in searching I discovered that there is a model already set up for rural VA hospitals to operate an intensive care unit. Network 23 has set up rural ICUs to provide the care for veterans from Fargo, S.D., to Omaha, Neb. Why hasn’t Roseburg been offered one of these plans from our network leadership or from the central office itself?

The Roseburg VA director and chief of staff continue to play the broken record routine: We are rural, we don’t have the numbers, and the ICU is off the table. I’ve got news for them. Veterans in Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa have an ICU in their rural VA hospitals because their leadership took the initiative and figured out a way to do it.

Veterans continue to fight and defend our way of life. The Department of Veterans Affairs, specifically the Veterans Health Administration, owes it to those who served. This is not a negotiable option with cost being the major factor. Just like it has been described, a veteran is one who gives their lives as a blank check, to serve, to go wherever ordered; possibly to lay one’s life down. I challenge the leadership of VISN-20 and VA Roseburg to bring back the heart of our hospital, join the rest of the country and provide an ICU like they do in other parts of rural America.

Rick Sciapiti of Roseburg has served as past president and secretary of the Douglas County Veterans Forum. He is a combat-wounded U.S. Army Vietnam veteran who has also held offices in other local veterans organizations. He can be reached at vietnamveteran68@msn.com.

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The News-Review Updated Apr 16, 2014 10:56AM Published Apr 16, 2014 10:56AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.