Veterans town hall leaves many feeling voiceless, choiceless; STGnews Videocast

ST. GEORGE – Staff members from the Veterans Affairs St. George Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, representatives from the St. George Vet Center, state and city officials and veterans gathered Wednesday night at the Southern Utah Veterans Home in Ivins to hear about changes in the VA and to participate in a town hall discussion.

The meeting was billed as an opportunity to open communication channels between the VA, particularly the outpatient clinic, and the veterans they serve, and emotions and tensions ran high as many in attendance stood to vent their frustrations with the clinic and the system.

The two-hour meeting began with a presentation from Southern Utah Veterans Home representatives, who talked about their facility, who it serves and the space available. The home currently has availability specifically in its short-term rehabilitative care units and serves veterans and spouses of veterans.

The longest portion of the meeting was taken by the the Community-Based Outpatient Clinic and featured a number of representatives, ranging from staff members to volunteers, who presented testimonials about the effectiveness of the clinic and information regarding veteran care.

Perhaps the most common theme discussed by the clinic representatives – many of whom are veterans themselves or have family members who are veterans – was that though they will do their utmost to care for veterans, there are many government protocols put in place that everyone must abide by.

Dr. Kirsten Mortenson, a provider at the clinic and a veteran herself, said in her address that because of her experiences in war and in medicine – both in private practice and with the VA – she strives to give veterans the same service they would get if they were to see her at a private clinic, though she recognized frustrations in the system.

One of the most powerful testimonials about the clinic came from husband-and-wife duo Emily and Chris Peterson. The two have been together off and on since they were 16, Emily Peterson said, but when Chris Peterson came home from Vietnam and they got married, something wasn’t right.

Chris Peterson said their marriage was supposed to be the start of their adventure together; they were still children. But there was more going on, he said, and he soon turned to alcohol and substance abuse.

“It worked pretty well,” Chris Peterson said, “until Emily left me.”

Chris Peterson returned from Vietnam in 1970, he said, but it wasn’t until five years ago that he reached out in desperation to the VA and received treatment for his now-diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This program literally saved my life and our marriage,” Chris Peterson said of the outpatient clinic. “It has been a godsend.”

Emily Peterson echoed her husband’s sentiments, stating that if anyone doubts whether the program works to just ask her.

Not everyone agreed with the clinic testimonials, however, and concerns were voiced by those in attendance about not being heard or validated by the clinic as well as deeper issues regarding the prescribing of medications and not being able to receive the care they need in the community they live in.

Kimberly Hendrix, a veteran of Afghanistan, came to hear the information presented as well as to voice concerns she has about the clinic that she felt needed to be addressed.

“It’s been my experience with the clinic that there are issues that are not addressed, and when you bring it to them, it kind of gets turned back around on the veteran,” Hendrix said, “then it becomes a sort of nonissue to the clinic.”

Her own experiences with the clinic thus far have not matched the addresses given by clinic representatives, she said, adding that she found herself almost laughing because her story pretty much negates everything they said.

“A treatment plan for me?” Hendrix said. “It is pretty much nonexistent.”

Hendrix said she hopes there were enough discontented voices speaking at the meeting for someone at the clinic to take notice, address the needs of the veterans and create real change.

“Part of what a town hall is supposed to be about is communicating with the veterans,” Hendrix said, “so that you can have positive communication even if there is some negative reviews, but a positive communication to create a solution.”

While a large contingent of clinic representatives was present, significantly missing was one employee whom several veterans said they have taken issue with for pulling them off their medications, and questions were raised as to why clinic representatives felt that employee should not be present at the town hall.

Dan Riding, a clinical pharmacy specialist for the VA whose office is in the outpatient clinic, said he felt the meeting could have been more productive if the veterans, who he felt had valid concerns, could have channeled their concerns in a different manner.

Several personal and specific concerns were raised that Riding said should have been addressed through different channels. The meeting wasn’t the right forum for speaking out about their personal medications and problems, he said, adding there are people willing to listen to the veterans’ concerns.

At one point during the meeting, a clinic representative asked a veteran outright which medication he was taking. Some in attendance expressed thoughts that the person’s actions were unprofessional and bordered on a violation of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

One of the topics that seemed to cause the most consternation and concern was the relatively new Veterans Choice Card.

The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 went into effect in August 2014. The VA Web page summarizes the act, stating that it:

Requires VA to offer an authorization to receive non-VA care to any veteran who is enrolled in the VA health care system as of August 1, 2014, or who is a newly discharged combat veteran if such veteran is unable to secure an appointment at a VA medical facility within 30 days (or a future published goal established by VA) or resides more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility, with certain exceptions.

The $10 billion program, designed to give veterans better access and quality of care, comes with eligibility stipulations that left some veterans questioning whether they really had a choice.

One of the most vocal veterans in the assembly, Will Lehman, expressed his discontentment with the entire system. He asked representatives from Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Chris Stewart’s offices, who were in attendance, what they are going to do in Washington to give veterans real choice.

Lehman recognized the VA’s strengths, stating the organization is good at dealing with catastrophic injuries, prosthetic care and spinal cord injuries, but the VA lacks the capabilities to provide primary care for veterans, he said.

“As far as primary care, they (the VA) are horrible,” Lehman said. “They are overworked, they are overwhelmed, and they cannot efficiently provide that care.”

Lehman questioned the efficiency of a program that would pay him $250 in travel expenses to go to Salt Lake City for a $50 chest x-ray. He added that his wife, many spouses of veterans and certainly VA employees all get better healthcare than veterans who have served their country.

Representatives from the St. George Vet Center also made a brief presentation at the meeting and were met with cheers and apparent great respect from the crowd for the counseling service and care the center provides to veterans, both in the community and beyond.

Melissa Anderson, for St. George News and KCSG, contributed the videocast for this report.

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  • Scotty January 22, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    Dr. Rutledge is primary care doctor at the St. George clinic and I feel he does an excellent job with my health issues. I’m sorry to hear some folks have issues with their care.

  • Roger Robinson January 22, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    I have been in he CBOC since 2000 and have had good to excellent care from all the providers there. I do see the providers overwhelmed and frustrated based upon the growing numbers of veterans that are seeking medical help and there just isnt enough time for these folks to address all the veterans needs.. I am very impressed with Dr Rutledge as my primary care doctor.. He is one of the best in my book..the solution to this is more funding from Congress and its doubtful that will happen with the current spending controls by both houses of Congress.

  • colten lomenick January 22, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Oh can’t this generation just die off already. I’m sick of hearing old people complaining about everything under the sun.

    • Nikki January 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

      I just want you to know that I have a long line of vets and I don’t appreciate you being that ignorant I serve on the pgr with most of these so called old folks watch who your talking to because with out them you wouldn’t have your freedoms punk

      • Another Vet January 23, 2015 at 8:47 am

        Nikki your the punk here. I served my country also and I don’t ask the government for anything because they sold us out and turned their back on us I fought to protect the freedoms. of the American people and part of those freedoms are the right to express themselves and to. speak their minds so take a chill pill and deal with it

    • Another Vet January 23, 2015 at 8:53 am

      Colton I’m a Vet and I answered the call on my own free will to protect your rights and freedoms which includes the right to express yourself enjoy your rights and freedoms because your entitled to them

  • Dave January 22, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    I wish I knew this was going to take place. I have my share of issues to bring up, but maybe that’s why I didn’t get the memo. Other Vets I know didn’t know about it either.

  • Will January 22, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    I need to make a clarification to the above video version of the report. Understanding that a video news report is restricted by the amount of time available, and the average time a person is willing to view a report, and that editing has to take place, I understand that my comments were edited not with any malice. Nevertheless, they portrayed me a little harshly and slightly more crazy than I actually am.

    I am 100% disabled veteran from a back and spinal cord injury and PTSD. I also had a right side brain injury.

    The fact is, the comments at this point were directly after someone in the audience made comments to me, and to another in the audience, which were derogatory in nature. As well a VA employee made a comment about addictive drugs, as if all addicitve drugs should be banned and not used.

    This was particularly upsetting to me because I was previously denied an effective “addictive drug,” and forced to experiment with non-addictive alternatives for the treatment of silent migraines. This was after I explained to my new VA provider, my journey to find out first, the origin of my illness, and then a treatment that worked. This “addictive drug, ” Butalbital, a barbiturate that mimics Phenobarbital, had saved my life, and now I found myself having to fight to continue its use. I take a small dose mixed with aspirin and caffeine. I believe It is a 70 year old med, cheap, and effective. Butalbital is a physically and psychologically addictive barbiturate. The alternatives are worse.

    Silent migraines are something most people have never heard of, in fact many doctors have not, believe me I know this as I was either misdiagnosed; I was even accused of faking symptoms. I have been placed on drugs that make my “addictive” medication seem like aspirin. Drugs that made it hard for me to function. Combinations of medication that have harmed my liver, and my kidneys, and my mental health, in what I feel was an attempt to silence me. Yes, I do feel that an attempt was made to silence me by the very people who were supposed to be treating me. I know I am not alone and other vets feel the same.

    Simply put, sometimes I have full blown migraine headaches, For years these were rare. Often times I have no headache pain, but suffer from a couple of very strange symptoms. This went on for years, and for many years I never told anyone out of fear of being labeled “crazy”. One of the symptoms is I hear (seemingly audibly) conversations that I have previously had, and or my own thoughts audibly. I do not hear voices telling me to do things, or strange foreign voices in my head; I am not schizophrenic.

    Understand this is not like a psychotic episode, the voices are audible, and it is, as if the conversation is reoccurring, or I am talking out loud to myself, when I am not. Needless to say, that once I was properly diagnosed and given a medication that worked to stop the silent migraines and the full blown migraines, I was not about to give it up, and I can be rather passionate about the subject.
    When I was finally diagnosed properly, and introduced to a medication that worked, I was not about to calmly stop taking it, nor am going to now. I take it only when I have the Silent Migraine warning symptoms, which are known as the Prodrome phase. If I take a dose, rest for a little while, most of the time, I have no further symptoms. For reason I cannot explain this might occur several times in 24 hours and then not again for a month, or it might occur dailly. I have noted some dietary things which seem to trigger more episodes, but I won’t bore you with all those details as I figure you are likely already near sleep from tome.

    For those interested in this rare, but real medical condition, you can read about here:
    So, when I was forced to give up these meds and try other migraine meds which I had already tried, I was horrified and I was angry. I was particularly upset when I was told they were addictive and the subtle accusation was that I was an addict using this medication recreationally. This was in spite of the fact the pharmaceutical records indicate otherwise, and in fact, indicate that I probably don’t utilize them enough. I know that I sometimes do not take them when I should. Yes, even now I suffer from the “I really don’t need these meds syndrome, I can get by without them.” I do the same with pain meds as well. I don’t like the having to have anything but my wits and inner strength to make it, unfortunately, in my world they are often not enough.

    • Female Vet January 23, 2015 at 12:56 pm

      Will, let me say that I am very disgusted at the poor care you & other veterans spoke of during the meeting. I am particularly disturbed that the George Dunnigan sat silently & refused to respond to any of your questions or the many questions from others. This is not the leadership or management that the veteran community or the CBOC staff deserves.
      As a disabled vet myself, I sat in the audience shocked at your questions & comments. I also expressed to my husband how incredibly blessed I was to be advised (by another veteran provider) to avoid the St. George CBOC in favor of enrolling at the Southern Nevade VA Health Center (SNVVAHC).
      Contrary to of the statements George Dunnigan made (like a coward) in the video, the SNVVAHC is NOT turning patients away. Personally, I have received routine & specialty outpatient care during 7 visits over the past year. Like the quality of care many vets praised by Tim Adams and his team at the St. George Vet Center, I can honestly say that my experiences at SNVVAHC have been exceptional.
      I have had the opportunity to walk thru the doors of the local CBOC on only 2 occasions to seek service. I was significantly less than satisfied on both occasions. They were rude & not helpful on the first visit. The second visit was a minor, but urgent issue. I stood my ground at the initial “we can do NOTHING for you” reaction & didn’t go away quietly. When the gentleman finally took the time to listen to my question & understood the urgency, I’ll give him credit for trying to help me, despite what I learned was antiquated technology & poor staff training within the SLC region. I walked out & found another solution on my own, but I gained insight to their predicament. If other CBOC’s can provide quality care, there’s absolutely no reason why this one can’t. With the nearest facility in the SLC region being in Price, it’s unacceptable for the St. George CBOC to be operating so poorly, especially given the population they must serve.
      VA administrators in SLC (or DC) urgently need to take a close look at the management of this CBOC & use the whatever means at thir disposal to clean house & get this clinic functioning efficiently so the staff can be afforded the tools, funding & other resources to provide quality service.
      I wish you the best & hope that you’ll be able to get the quality of care that you richly deserve for the sacrifice that you made to serve your country. God Bless!

      • Linda February 5, 2015 at 5:00 pm

        I was very happy with the SNVVAHC, unfortunately several years ago they told me I had to switch to SLC. I know the policy has changed and could go down to SN now, and I have thought of switching back to the SNVVAHC. I do not, because I think that some day, maybe sooner than later, I might not be able to make the trip to Vegas. Then I will be back to square one. As well, I have to admit that the care I have received at the SLC medical center, has been about the best I ever have from the VA…

  • koolaid January 22, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    I’m sure it’s all Obama’s fault.

  • Not Buying it January 23, 2015 at 2:10 am

    Yawn after the 3rd line blah blah blah yada yada yada

  • colten lomenick January 23, 2015 at 7:38 am

    Just some old geysers squawking about their pills. Can’t you all just see that there are too many of you? That’s the problem! If about half of you relics hit the road that will make room for the rest of you. Move out of the way.

    • Roger Robinson January 23, 2015 at 9:23 am

      ya know Colten, one day, if your lucky, you may become one of us?? then you can really complain on your life?? IF your lucky? Just dont forget that it was all of ol geysers who have Given You The Right to Express Your Opinion.. Freedom Comes with a Price and We Veterans have been given a Promise from our Government to address our needs.. So, Go in Peace!

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