Veterans vent anger over medical center shift

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
Dozens of local veterans delivered a loud and clear message to the director of the Hefner VA Medical Center Tuesday night.
Don’t close the emergency room. Keep the inpatient care.
Veterans said they feel like they are being thrown to the curb after spending years serving their country.
Carolyn Adams, director of the medical center, withstood more than two hours of questions and withering criticism of the plans to make major changes.
Veterans said they were ambushed with the announcement on Sept. 19 that the hospital will be making a transition away from inpatient, emergency and surgical services to a long-term and mental-health facility for veterans.
Adams listened and tried to explain the decision, while telling veterans she was there to listen and take their suggestions back to VA officials.
U.S. Rep. Mel Watt had a list of his own questions about the proposed changes and the timing, coming near the end of the Bush administration.
Watt said he has has made an official inquiry to James Peake, secretary of Veterans Affairs, but suggested that he may not get a reply. “They’re playing rope-a-dope until the end of the administration.”
Watt said he wants an explanation about the changes and if this is part of some national effort to privatize medical care for veterans.
If there isn’t a rational basis for the changes, Watt said the plan can be scrapped.
He called the timing “very, very suspect,” and went on to assure veterans and VA Medical Center employees that he will get answers.
Watt praised Adams for having a lot of courage to come to the meeting and defend the decision.
Watt also debunked a notice that had been distributed at the Medical Center that he was to be at the J.C. Price American Legion Post at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Dozens of veterans showed up, but Watt wasn’t there.
Watt said he had no idea who passed out the notices.
Others blamed the VA for the misinformation.
Adams tried repeatedly to assure veterans that walk-in clinics will be provided seven days a week and at night to help with prescriptions and non-emergency care.
She also repeated several times that of the 21,000 visits last year to the hospital’s emergency room, only 2,000 were actual emergencies.
Adams said the VA will contract with area hospitals to provide emergency and inpatient care.
That touched off a firestorm of criticism of local hospitals, primarily Rowan Regional Medical Center. Several veterans shared stories of waiting for hours in the emergency room.
Don Webb, commander of the Rowan Veterans Council, said he sat in the emergency room at Rowan Regional for four hours. His wife got an ambulance to take him to the VA emergency room, where he was diagnosed with a heart attack.
“I wouldn’t be here today, if it hadn’t been for the VA emergency room,” Webb told Adams.
“Closing our emergency room is the No. 1 problem,” Webb told Adams. “We want you to know where we stand.”
Harvey McCorkle, wearing a portable oxygen supply, echoed many of the veterans, saying, “A lot of veterans will die if we’re dumped in hospital emergency rooms.”
“You’re letting us down,” Zane Robertson of Salisbury told Adams.
Robertson and other veterans said they had served their country and now they should get the care they deserve from the local VA Medical Center.
“We had the bridge to nowhere, the road to nowhere, now we’ve got the hospital to nowhere,” Abe Daniels said to a roar of applause.
Daniels and others questioned why the VA spent millions upgrading the emergency and surgical areas, only to close them.
Ty Cobb, a veteran and Republican candidate for the 12th district U.S. Congressional seat, questioned the plan to contract with hospitals.
Adams said the contracts will be for one-year and will be canceled if the veterans aren’t satisfied with the care. “We want you to be happy,” she said.
Cobb said veterans are satisfied with the care at the VA.
Medical Center employees said they don’t think area hospitals are equipped to deal with veterans suffering from Agent Orange and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Daniels and other veterans questioned whether the VA will pay the full costs of treatment at the other hospitals. None appeared to like the answers, although they were assured that the VA will have case managers at the hospitals to help them through the process.