ROSEBURG (AP) — Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center Interim Director Doug Paxton makes a habit of walking around the VA to meet directly with employees and patients.
Seven weeks into his term, Paxton said his priorities include reducing patients’ waits for appointments and increasing transparency about the VA’s operations.
“I believe that customer service is of the utmost importance in any organization, and our veterans are our customers. I enjoy listening to them, learning from them, helping them, and being a veteran myself, there is a certain camaraderie that I truly enjoy in engaging with my fellow veterans,” he said. “I am here to work for them.”
Paxton’s push for transparency has so far impressed Douglas County Veterans Forum members, who were so disenchanted with previous Director Carol Bogedain that they issued a “no confidence” statement against her.
The embattled VA, already at odds with veterans over the 2009 closure of the hospital’s intensive care unit, has more recently faced criticisms about lengthy waits for care and what some employees have described as a “toxic” work environment.
In the midst of the firestorm, Bogedain abruptly announced she would retire in October. Paxton took the helm Oct. 15.
At the top of the Roseburg VA’s organizational chart are four senior management officials called “the tetrad.” They include the director, associate director, chief of staff and chief nurse executive. In August, the Douglas County Veterans Forum, which represents about 5,000 area veterans in 17 veteran organizations, issued a statement of “no confidence” for the three tetrad members then in office and called for their removal. They said tetrad members had contributed to poor employee morale, whistle-blower retaliation and long wait times while collecting bonuses. At the time, Bogedain had announced her retirement and former Chief of Staff Chip Taylor had already left the VA to become chief of staff for the Umpqua Regional Medical Center in Roseburg.
Paxton said he does not anticipate investigation or removal of the two who remain — Chief Nurse Executive Tracy Weistreich and Associate Director Steven Broskey.
“The entire leadership team at the VA Roseburg is dedicated in providing exceptional services in all aspects of care for our veteran population,” he said.
The VA central office in Washington, D.C., is currently reviewing applicants for a permanent Roseburg director. Recruitment closed Oct. 30 and the regional Veterans Integrated Service Network expects to receive a list of qualified applicants soon.
The VA has tentatively selected a replacement chief of staff, with veteran input, but the VA will not release the name until the hiring is official, Paxton said.
Those long waits for care might be getting shorter, but some veterans say their waits continue.
Vietnam veteran Jim Suhrstedt fell and injured his right shoulder more than four months ago and says VA bureaucracy has repeatedly blocked him from getting help. He has a torn rotator cuff, torn tendons and a dislocated tendon that runs down to his bicep.
“I’m in constant pain, but that doesn’t matter to them. They have a procedure that they follow,” he said.
The VA told him in October that if they couldn’t operate within four weeks they would send him to an outside provider. They made an appointment for him with Slocum Center for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Eugene.
Slocum had a Nov. 14 cancellation and signed him up. On Nov. 13, Suhrstedt got a call from the VA. They would not pay for the surgery. They also told him they had arranged an appointment in four hours with a surgeon at the Portland VA. The forecast was for snow and freezing rain.
Fortunately for Suhrstedt, the weather predictions didn’t pan out. Unfortunately, the earliest the Portland VA could get him in is Jan. 23. He plans to wait it out despite the pain.
“What choice do I have? I can’t fix it myself. I can’t afford to go to an outside surgeon and say, ‘Hey fix me up,’” he said. “I’m a disabled veteran. I’m retired. I turn 67 in October, so I’m just bound to do whatever they tell me because I have no other options.”
The VA says wait times are decreasing. In June, according to their numbers, new patients were waiting an average of 70 days for specialty care appointments, 48 days for primary care and 46 days for mental health care. The most recent data shows waits for specialty care have dropped dramatically, from 70 days to 38. Primary care waits rose slightly, to about 50 days, and mental health waits lowered a bit to 39.
Paxton said the VA has endeavored to reduce wait times by expanding clinic hours, hiring three additional primary care providers and expediting recruitment.
The VA also began mailing choice cards this month to veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have to wait more than a month for an appointment. About 1,019 veterans meet the geographic requirement and about 508 veterans may be eligible due to scheduling delays, Paxton said.
Douglas County Veterans Forum spokesman Jim Little said he believes the VA is making an effort, but cautioned that the choice cards won’t solve all the veterans’ problems, since many rural veterans will also have difficulty obtaining appointments with private doctors.
“A voucher is only good if you can use it,” he said.
In her last letter to the VA Relay newsletter in October, Bogedain indicated that 360 new employees had been hired over the past three years and just 35 of those were for new positions.
That suggests that 325 left the VA in just three years — about one-third of the VA’s staff.