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Congressman hosts Hudson roundtable on VA reform

Republican Congressman Sean Duffy represents Wisconsin's 7th District. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Randy Hanson)1 / 2
Pete Hegseth of Marine on St. Croix, Minn., is the CEO of an organization named Concerned Veterans for America. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Randy Hanson)2 / 2

Fix what needs fixing, but don’t scuttle the entire Veterans Affairs health care system, is one of the messages Congressman Sean Duffy heard when he came to Hudson for a discussion with military veterans on Monday, Aug. 4.

About a half-dozen county veterans service officers and two other veterans attended the forum held in a meeting room of the Hudson House Grand Hotel at noon. State Rep. Dean Knudson and State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf also were on hand, and addressed the group about state legislation on veterans’ benefits.

Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, served as moderator for the meeting.

The meeting came on the heels of Congress approving a $16.3 billion Veterans Affairs reform bill. The bill was a reaction to revelations four months earlier that VA employees had falsified records about how long veterans have to wait for a doctor’s appointment.

“There’s a lot of problems, but there are a lot of things that are working,” Merlin Blaisdell, St. Croix County’s veterans service officer told the congressman, encouraging him not to “fix what is working.”

Most of the talk during the hour-long program was about what isn’t working.

Duffy, the representative for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, reported on the average wait times for a doctor’s appointment at the state’s VA facilities.

The VA hospital at Tomah had reported the average to be eight days, but an audit relieved it to be 17 days, Duffy said. At Madison, the actual wait was 50 days, not the reported 29 days, he said, and at Milwaukee, it was 22 days, not the reported 11 days.

“Either we were willfully misled or they have some accounting procedures that are way off,” Duffy said.

He promised to keep pressing to find out why it takes so long to see a doctor at a VA facility.

Duffy reported on the highlights of the VA reform bill, which commits $10 billion for a Veterans Choice Fund that will allow veterans to seek private care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or can’t get a doctor’s appointment within 30 days.

It also provides $5 billion for hiring new doctors and nurses, and money to open new VA facilities.

In addition, the bill gives new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald with greater power to fire or demote VA officials found to have lied or been poor managers.

“If you have this kind of corruption, this kind of rot inside the VA, where our men and women aren’t being served well, you have to be able to get them out. You have to be able to replace them with people who truly care,” Duffy said.

He said the bill, which President Barack Obama is expected to sign into law, isn’t “the silver bullet.”

“This is not going to fix the whole problem, but I do think it is a step in the right direction,” he said.

Ted Harvey, the veterans service officer for Price County, told of a recently medically retired soldier who was turned down for a recommended surgery at the Minneapolis VA, only to have it approved at the Madison VA.

The various Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) don’t communicate with each other, or with the active military health care system, Harvey said.

“It’s so frustrating when you see something like that, that should have been taken care of, no problem -- we’ll do it now,” he said.

Blaisdell of St. Croix County said one of the problems is that the military is too quick to retire people who are injured in the line of duty, and send them off to the VA.

“If these people are hurt in the military, and they can be fixed, they should be fixed in the military before they are discharged,” Blaisdell said. “In my opinion, that would be a big help to the medical system and the VA.”

Hegseth of Concerned Veterans for America said the reason for the medical retirements is that the size of the military is being reduced.

Scott Bachowski, veterans service officer for Barron County, called attention to doctor and nurse practitioner vacancies at VA facilities.

He said the manager of the Rice Lake VA clinic told him it takes “months and months and months” to replace a doctor who leaves.

Leonard Breure of New Richmond, a disabled veteran, said his primary care physician at the Maplewood, Minn., VA clinic told him the clinic is greatly understaffed.

The clinic has lost three nurses in the past nine months, and they haven’t been replaced, Breure related.

“It’s not just a problem for the vets, but for the staff, too,” Breure said, reporting that the doctor is doing work after hours.

Breure’s wife, Diana, also a disabled veteran, said the patients that VA doctors see have more problems than the general public.

Rick Gates, the veterans service officer for Polk County, said one of the problems with the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy is that it is “totally autocratic.”

Gates said it didn’t surprise him that Phoenix VA officials cooked the books after getting a directive to reduce wait times. Top officials just say fix the problem, but don’t look into how to do it, he said. Instead, the directive gets passed down the line.

“It’s top-down. It’s ponderous. It’s whack-a-mole,” Gates said. “It will take somebody that goes through this like poop through a goose. It is going to take a big shake-up, and sometimes the fix is worse than the problem.”

Knudson and Harsdorf noted that the Wisconsin Legislature allocated $5 million for the state’s Veterans Trust Fund in the current budget. The fund provides a number of benefits and services for veterans, including job retraining grants, money for eyeglasses and hearing aids, and emergency relief grants.

Harsdorf said the Veterans Trust Fund also received $5 million in the previous budget.

In addition, legislation was passed to give veterans credit for skills they learned in the military when they apply for a state license for a profession. And businesses were given incentives to hire disabled veterans.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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