Area veterans share their VA medical care experiences
VFW Post 3143 in Rhinelander recently hosted a town hall-style meeting with officials from the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain. Rhinelander falls within Iron Mountain’s catchment area, and the meeting served as a way for the hospital’s staff to communicate new developments to veterans in the counties of Lincoln, Vilas, and Oneida, as well as to give local veterans the opportunity to voice their questions and concerns regarding their VA benefits and medical care.
Led by Public Affairs Officer Brad Nelson, the opening presentation focused largely on the changing face of the United States military and how the Oscar G. Johnson hospital is adapting to these changes.
The fastest growing group in the military is women. The proportion of women in the armed services has nearly doubled in the last twenty five years, a trend which is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. In response the Department of Veterans Affairs is increasing its specialized care that will focus on women’s health issues, such as reproductive health, and ensuring that women veterans have access to care of equal quality to that which men receive.
As the average veteran becomes younger and more tech-savvy, the VA is also trying to find a presence in veterans’ lives that is only the touch of a button away. Nelson discussed the “PTSD Coach” mobile app, the first in a series of resources to help veterans on the go. This app, which has been downloaded 100,000 times globally, offers methods to help manage one’s symptoms and links to direct support for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, designed to provide self-help as a supplement to one’s professional care.
Also briefly touched on was the scandal surrounding the VA, in which secret waiting lists in the Phoenix area allegedly led to the deaths of dozens of veterans awaiting care. While the reports saw many of the VA’s top officials resign, the Iron Mountain officials present reiterated their own transparency, showing that average wait times at Oscar G. Johnson are shorter than or comparable to national averages.
A question-and-answer session following the presentation was a mixed bag, seeing many harsh criticisms that contrasted with a handful of veterans who have been very satisfied with their care.
Among the most common complaints were problems with local VAs’ call centers, with many of those present claiming that they have experienced problems being transferred to distant Iron Mountain from their localities. Chief Nurse Andrea Collins explained that phones at such call centers are ringing off the hook, which is why Iron Mountain’s seven localities support each other by sharing their call overflow. Still, several meeting attendees reiterated that they had never once reached their local clerks, which has caused them trouble in receiving health care when they need it.
One particularly emotional moment came when David Boda, who served in the Vietnam War, brought what had been a boisterous room to silence as he condemned the VA for not doing enough. “I, like a lot of others here, spent a lot of time in the hospital…we don’t want to relive that.” Echoing concerns voiced by others regarding mental health care, he said simply, “The VA needs to step up their standards to help the people who paid this price.”
In contrast with the overall tone of the meeting, Keith Bullion raised no question or concern but instead offered his own experience in keeping up with his medications. Bullion advised veterans to see their doctors at least a month-and-a-half ahead of time every year to renew their prescriptions. “Keep prescriptions current, keep them updated all the time.” He said it is a good habit to keep a thirty day calendar for medications, and to take inventory of it every two weeks. “The VA has helped me through the last seventeen years. I have no complaints,” said Bullion.
Similarly, veteran Paul Hennes said, “I am very pleased with what the VA has done for me. I can’t say enough about the care I’ve received.” Medical professionals are in short supply in every part of the country, but Nelson was pleased to report that the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center is currently enjoying a full complement of doctors.
Rick Wolf, a Lincoln County Veteran Service Officer, says this meeting is a great opportunity for local veterans to voice their concerns directly to the people in charge. Wolf says his job is to “help out veterans in any way I can,” a job which often involves serving as a go-between by listening to veterans and reporting their concerns at weekly meetings in Iron Mountain.
Town hall-style meetings like this one are now required nationally by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to increase transparency, but Iron Mountain has been conducting them since before the Phoenix incident. Nelson reports that Iron Mountain officials visit all of their localities for about six of these meetings per year, and in the past year have run twenty five outreach events.