U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, is feeling optimistic about the changes at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center. It’s like night and day, he said, over what it was just a few months ago.
DeFazio toured the VA along with Interim Director Dave Whitmer and an entourage of community leaders like state Rep. Gary Leif and Douglas County Veterans Forum President Larry Hill Tuesday morning.
DeFazio has been critical of the performance of past Roseburg VA directors Carol Bogedain and Doug Paxton, and he had called for an investigation that ultimately resulted in Paxton’s resignation. But he had high praise for Whitmer.
“Now we’ve got a fabulous acting director. I wish he would stay,” DeFazio said in an interview with The News-Review Editorial Board Tuesday afternoon.
He noted many local veterans were concerned that with the new VA clinic in Eugene, Roseburg would be downgraded, but he said under Whitmer the VA is being upgraded. DeFazio said it bodes very well for the future that the Roseburg VA has moved from one to two stars since Whitmer arrived four months ago, and that it’s likely they’ll get to three stars before his year-long temporary assignment is over.
“I just think it’s a phenomenal improvement,” DeFazio said.
Whitmer has said he planned only to stay for one year. DeFazio said he’s not worried about what will happen when Whitmer leaves because the director has been aggressively recruiting good managers and he will be the chief recruiting officer for his own replacement.
“I don’t think we’re going to get someone else who’s just looking at coming to Roseburg to get ready for retirement. I think we’ll get hopefully someone who is a competent up and coming manager who looks at Roseburg as an opportunity to improve and then move up to a bigger hospital,” DeFazio said.
During his VA visit, DeFazio toured the Acute Psych Unit, one of the Roseburg VA’s newer facilities.
And he met with World War II veteran Glen Kuskie. Kuskie joined the Army at age 16, and served in the 31st Infantry Regiment in the Philippines. He was captured by the Japanese, was a prisoner of war for 34 months, and survived the Bataan Death March. In 1944, he was brought aboard a Japanese prison ship, the Shin’yō Maru, also known as a “hell ship.” It was attacked by an American submarine, whose occupants were unaware American prisoners were aboard. He was one of 82 survivors. He floated on a hatch cover, picking up other survivors, and made it to the Sindangan Bay in the Philippines, where he was rescued by Filipino guerillas.
After World War II was over, he joined the U.S. Air Force, and served another 18 years.
He belatedly received the Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino World War II service, and decided not to open the box containing it until his meeting with DeFazio Tuesday.
Kuskie showed DeFazio a medal he had received, and DeFazio gave Kuskie a flag.
“This is a flag we had flown over the United states Capitol in your honor,” DeFazio said.
DeFazio told Kuskie he too was an Air Force veteran.
“I’m very honored to have met you,” he said.
Kuskie said he planned to keep the flag.
“I never expected it,” he told The News-Review. He said DeFazio’s visit was “really good.”
DeFazio told The News-Review Kuskie’s story is inspiring, and it’s amazing that he would voluntarily re-enlist in the military after surviving the Bataan Death March.
“I don’t know that we’re made of that anymore in this country,” he said.
Hill, the veterans forum president, posed for a photo with DeFazio, and said he was happy about the visit.
“Even though it is an election year, it was good to see him,” he quipped.
Whitmer said he was glad to have DeFazio’s support.
“We appreciate having Congressman DeFazio here to really observe the changes we’re making on behalf of our veterans,” he said.
As a result of DeFazio’s call for an for an investigation into the Roseburg VA last year, investigators from the Office of the Medical Inspector and the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection visited the Roseburg campus and interviewed more than 100 VA employees.
In the wake of that investigation, former director Paxton, former chief of surgery Dinesh Ranjan, and former chief of staff Ratnabali Ranjan stepped down. After Paxton left, the VA brought in Whitmer, a change agent who plans to be on campus for about one year, make improvements, and then return to his job as chief operating officer for the Florida-based Sunshine Health Network.
In a two-page summary report, the OMI said in February that the former Roseburg VA senior leadership had created an environment of intimidation. It also identified problems with medical services in some departments. The News-Review has submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request with the VA’s central office in Washington, D.C., for a copy of the full report.
DeFazio told the House Veterans Affairs Committee May 16 that he had to appeal to the top, to former VA secretary David Shulkin, in order to get an investigation. He said he repeatedly brought problems at the Roseburg VA to the attention of the regional network that oversees it, but that the regional network directors “blew it all off.” He has called for the regional networks to be either consolidated or abolished.
DeFazio also spoke with The News-Review about the upcoming election and about the ways he said both parties have failed rural Americans.
DeFazio said he has concerns about his party’s national image.
“I think both parties have failed rural America, and working class America in different ways,” he said.
He said Republican deregulation and the recently approved tax reform have helped very large corporations but hurt rural America, creating budget deficits that could be plugged by reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits.
However, DeFazio agrees with Republican President Donald Trump that trade policies supported by congressional Republicans and Democratic presidents, like NAFTA and the TPP, were bad for ordinary workers.
He said while forests were over-cut in the 1970s and ‘80s, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, which has been “catastrophic” for Southwest Oregon. He’s worked with Republicans in Congress to pass laws to fix that, but they haven’t won Senate approval.
DeFazio will face Republican Art Robinson for the fifth time in the November general election.
“Art’s persistent, you’ve got to give him that,” DeFazio said. “We’ll see what happens.”
DeFazio said Robinson was the first congressional candidate backed by a super PAC, billionaire Wall Street hedge fund speculator Robert Mercer. And he said Robinson was the first congressional candidate to use Cambridge Analytica, a company DeFazio said was stealing personal data in an effort to figure out how to sway voters.
“He’s had powerful allies in the past, and it hasn’t worked out so well, but I take nothing for granted, and I will vigorously campaign,” he said.