Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center Interim Director Dave Whitmer received praise from veterans at his final town hall meeting before he heads back to Florida on Dec. 21.
At the meeting, held at the Roseburg VA on Tuesday evening, Whitmer talked about what lies ahead for the VA, including a state veterans home that will be built on the VA campus, changes planned for the Veterans Choice Program and a contract dispute that could bring an end to nighttime emergency services.
Whitmer said the VA plans to end its contract with the private company TriWest, which has been handling the Veterans Choice Program. VA employees will take over the program, which helps veterans obtain private medical care when they can’t access it at the VA, and additional staff members will be hired to do the work.
Whitmer also discussed the Emerald Valley Emergency Physicians, who have announced they want out of their five-year contract with the VA. That’s a problem because they staff most of the physician shifts in the Emergency Department. The VA has three months to figure out what to do. Whitmer said the VA is looking for a replacement contractor and trying to convince some of the Emerald Valley doctors to become regular VA employees. But the VA may also have to consider replacing its 24/7 Emergency Department with 12-hour-a-day urgent care, he said.
A disabled veteran said he was worried what would happen to him if the Emergency Department were closed at night and he had a 1 a.m. heart attack. He said if there was no one to authorize his care at Mercy Medical Center, he would have to pay out of pocket.
“It sounds to me like if I have a heart attack, I’d better schedule it between 7 and 7,” he said.
Whitmer said no decision has been made yet about whether to end nighttime emergency service, and he won’t be here to make that choice. However, he said if nighttime emergency service does end, the VA and Mercy would have an agreement to ensure veterans’ hospital bills are paid by the VA.
He also said it’s better for the veteran having a heart attack to go straight to Mercy anyway, since going to the VA first would only delay lifesaving care.
“If you have a heart attack at one o’clock in the morning, I would be concerned right now if you came to our ED, because I don’t have an ICU to actually receive you and then give you that kind of care that you need,” he said.
Douglas County Veterans Forum President Larry Hill was one of several veterans who thanked Whitmer for improving the culture at the VA.
“You’ve been open in your communication, you’ve been honest, you have been responsive to what the veterans community has brought forward, you have implemented things that we casually mentioned,” he said.
Whitmer said he thoroughly enjoyed the job.
“It’s been one of the great honors of my career in public service and in public health to be this medical center director, to really start our transformation from what we were...to where we are going in the future. I think our future is very bright,” he said.
Whitmer knows who the new permanent director will be, but said he can’t announce his name yet. He did say he’s currently a leader at a VA facility in the Pacific Northwest.
One veteran said he was concerned that the new director is from another facility in the VA Northwest Network, or VISN-20. He asserted that VISN-20 treats Roseburg VA like its “ugly stepchild.”
Whitmer said he’s received a lot of support from VISN-20, including a 20 percent increase for Roseburg VA’s 2019 budget that will be spent on hiring staff for the choice program and primary care.
“I understand your concerns here, but I personally don’t share them,” he said.
Kevin Forrest will take over as a second interim director Jan. 3. Forrest comes from the Manchester, New Hampshire, VA and may serve as many as three months while the permanent director goes through the VA’s lengthy vetting process, Whitmer said.
Whitmer said the Roseburg VA will expand its mental health program in Eugene under the direction of a new associate chief of staff for mental health, who is currently a U.S. Army psychiatrist stationed in Germany.
Whitmer also said he’s interviewing two outstanding candidates for a new chief of staff, and will make a selection before he leaves.