Expanded services for veterans on the horizon

Staff Writer

In an effort to increase the level of services provided to veterans in Southwest Colorado, representatives of several agencies recently met to discuss a degradation in area health services through the Department of Veterans Affairs, with positive news reported following the meeting.

After the meeting, it was announced that the Durango VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic will increase services and hire an additional doctor in order to shorten wait times for appointments. The clinic will also soon be under new management.

According to Mike Hayward, secretary of the local Veterans for Veterans organization, the meeting was a step in a years-long process to address the level of services in Durango.

“Veterans for Veterans have made several trips to Albuquerque over the past 3 years to discuss the deteriorating services for our Veterans,” Hayward wrote in an e-mail. “We hit a roadblock with a key person and were never able to voice our concerns directly to George Marnell and were called trouble makers, whiners, and our concerns were constantly ignored. When the services at the Durango deteriorated to a point that appointments were being cancelled, rescheduled, cancelled and rescheduled again, our members asked the board to do something. Our local Veterans were so upset they were ready to tie banners on their rifles and go to Durango and protest.”

It was at that point that Hayward, on behalf of Veterans for Veterans, e-mailed Eric K. Shinseki, head of the VA in Washington, D.C., also sending copies of the e-mails to top staff for the VA and to the staffs of Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall and Rep. Scott Tipton.

“Senator Bennet’s staff contacted us right away and set up a conference call with our board members. Soon after that we heard from Congressman Tipton’s office, who sent letters right away to key VA management. On behalf of Veterans for Veterans I sent a follow-up email to the same distribution, and soon after we received a call from George Marnell’s Assistant who set up the meeting with George Marnell,” Hayward wrote in his e-mail to SUN staff.

That meeting, held Jan. 13 in Pagosa Springs, included the Veteran for Veterans board of directors; Raymond Taylor, Archuleta County veteran services officer; Kara Catton, executive assistant to George Marnell (director of the New Mexico VA Health Care System, who is retiring in April); Avery Perryman, staff member for Bennet; and Darlene Marcus, staff member for Tipton.

Hayward said the level of services at the Durango clinic has been deteriorating over time due to a decrease in available services, longer wait times to obtain appointments, and a lack of medical services.

Because of that, Hayward said, many veterans chose to use the VA-run clinic in Farmington, N.M. instead of the Durango clinic.

The Durango VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic is a contract clinic, versus being run directly by the VA.

Currently, the clinic is under the management of Health Net, but, as of April 1, Valor Healthcare will manage the clinic.

According to the VA website, the Durango clinic currently offers the following primary care services to eligible veterans: blood draws (by appointment only), routine lab tests, EKGs (electrocardiograms), social work services and evaluations by doctors.

Valor, Hayward said, will expand the footprint of the clinic and hire additional staff.

Hayward said that additional staff is set to include another doctor, a physician’s assistant and other staff.

Valor Healthcare’s website notes that their clinics offer a full range of primary care services, as well as mental health care services. It is not currently known what services will be available at the Durango clinic under Valor.

“We have been assured that a representative from either the VA and/or Valor will come talk to our group about the transition and what to expect,” Hayward wrote.

“Our veterans have bravely served their country.  When they return it’s our job to ensure they have access to the services we have promised and they have earned,” Bennet said in a press release issued following the meeting. “This is a great step towards improving care for veterans in southwestern Colorado and we will continue to work with the VA, veterans and others on issues around veteran access to health care in rural areas.”

In addition to the potentially positive changes involving the Durango clinic, changes on the horizon point toward additional services being offered locally, at Pagosa Springs Medical Center.

PSMC released the following statement concerning a contract that would provide for veterans to be served locally:

“The Pagosa Springs Medical Center is honored to be working with Mike Hayward and members of the Veterans for Veterans of Archuleta County to develop a program where Veterans are able to receive quality health care locally at Pagosa Springs Medical Center. Thanks to Veterans of Archuleta County’s advocacy and leadership, working in tandem with the offices of Senator Bennet and Senator Tipton, Pagosa Springs Medical Center is a few weeks away from signing an historic contract with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (AKA The VA).”

The statement continues to note that PSMC’s long-term goal is to gain the authorization to provide comprehensive services, including primary care, but that the upcoming contract will authorize the following services: gastrointestinal, colonoscopy, physical therapy, rehabilitation medicine, imaging, and pulmonary functional testing.

“These services and more will require authorization from the VA and an order from an authorized VA physician. It is still not clear if or when we will be authorized by the VA to offer laboratory testing and primary care and other services,” PSMC’s statement continues. “It is our greatest hope that these services will be added to our scope. The Pagosa Springs Medical Center will continue to work toward expansion of services to the best of our abilities, as we are committed to doing all that we can to provide everyone in our community quality health care.”

Veterans for Veterans is also working to help hire a readjustment councilor position in Pagosa Springs.

This position, hired through the VA, was originally set to be posted in October, but delays have occurred for various reasons, Hayward said.

Calls to Taylor seeking additional information were not returned.

Veterans for Veterans of Archuleta County is a nonprofit organization developed to help meet the needs of local veterans. The group meets on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. at Quality Resort.