Members of the Douglas County Veterans Forum say the June death of a veteran illustrates why the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center needs an intensive care unit.
Forum President Rick Sciapiti said he was saddened but not surprised Wednesday to learn about the circumstances of the June 25 death of retired Army Sgt. Ray Velez, 61, of Junction City.
Velez went into cardiac arrest while in an ambulance en route to Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield after suffering complications from a hernia operation at the Roseburg VA, according to a story in The Oregonian newspaper.
VA medical inspectors are investigating the death. A combination of inadequate care and malfunctioning equipment may have delayed getting Velez emergency care when he became sick after the operation, according to The Oregonian report. Velez was taken to Springfield because the ICU at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg was full.
The Roseburg VA closed its ICU in October 2009. Since then, veterans have lobbied for its return to treat patients suffering life-threatening emergencies.
“This is the nightmare scenario. This obviously happened because of the lack of an ICU,” Sciapiti said.
Past forum president Jim Little agreed.
“We in the forum, in the past, had wanted an ICU (again), but that never came to pass and this kind of points out, I guess, a need for one,” Little said. “We were told by the VA that the need was not there.”
Federal lawmakers Rep. Peter DeFazio and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have urged the VA to restore an ICU. The Oregon House passed a resolution in 2011 asking the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reopen it.
After a lengthy review of the Roseburg VA by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, the VA in 2011 retained the hospital’s current services but disappointed veterans by declining to reopen an ICU.
VA spokeswoman Carrie Boothe said the VA could not comment on Velez’s death because federal privacy regulations bar divulging information about individual patients.
She said the VA replaced its ICU with a monitored telemetry unit in 2009.
Telemetry measures a patient’s vital signs, such as heart rate and breathing.
Still, Boothe said the VA continues “providing emergency services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
A former emergency room director at the Roseburg VA, Dr. Charles Ross, disagrees.
Ross said an emergency room must have the staff and equipment to handle life-threatening emergencies. When the VA claims it has an emergency room but has no intensive care unit, it is using “smoke and mirrors” to mislead veterans, he said.
Ross said the VA really offers the services of an urgent care clinic rather than the emergency room care a patient would receive at a full-service hospital.
“It’s not a true emergency room, but veterans are not told the truth. If they truly have an emergency problem, they’re wasting time by going there first,” Ross said.
Ross is medical director of the Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital emergency department, but still lives in Roseburg. He has 38 years experience as an emergency room doctor. He said he worked just eight months at the VA before he left, a decision he said he made because of leadership he says stifled internal criticism about problems at the VA.
Ross left the VA before the current director, Carol Bogedain, took charge in 2011.
Boothe said the VA is open with veterans about its programs.
“The VA leadership meets with veterans in multiple venues throughout our entire catchment area on a regular basis and shares information on the services we provide,” Boothe said.
Little said he thinks Bogedain has communicated well with veterans.
“Compared with what was going on four years ago, we’re well, well pleased,” Little said.
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.