Roseburg Veterans Administration Healthcare Director Doug Paxton fielded comments, questions and concerns in a quarterly meeting in Brookings Wednesday night, but low attendance could be indicative of how well he’s addressed the complaints in the three years since taking the helm.
About 25 veterans filled the small lobby at the VA clinic on Railroad Street compared to previous standing-room-only crowds at the Best Western Beachfront Inn, where he faced down throngs of angry vets.
“There were a lot of p----- off veterans here, and I can see why,” he said. “We had a lot of problems. They were justified in feeling angry. But over the last 18 months, the tone of the town halls has changed. We’ve developed a trust. Before, there definitely wasn’t a trust.”
Instead of making long-term promises and fielding angry questions and accusations, Paxton was able to outline accomplishments made locally and at the regional clinic in Roseburg.
Communication between veterans and their doctors has improved, community-based care has been implemented and computers are learning how to speak with one another to transfer medical files from other districts and states, the VA representatives said Wednesday.
A major breakthrough, veterans agree, is the completion of the new Brookings clinic, which is substantially larger, at more than 7,200 square feet, than the former offices on Fifth Street. It also offers the same primary health-care services, expanded mental health assistance and tele-health.
The clinic is still struggling with physician turn-over, Paxton admitted, but said a husband-wife team that wants to make Brookings their home will begin Dec. 26, filling positions recently vacated by other primary care doctors.
They will each have a registered nurse, a licensed practical nurse and a medical support assistant in charge of scheduling. Social workers and psychologists round out the offerings.
Paxton apologized for the turnover, noting that 99 percent of the time it’s out of his control.
“It’s hard to recruit for Brookings — and Roseburg,” he said. “They have to want to live here. And a lot has to do with not only the doctor, but their spouse.
“In Roseburg, Macy’s shut down and all we’ve got left is Walmart and Safeway. Doctors’ wives tend to be high-maintenance. They demand a metropolitan lifestyle. You’re not going to find that in Roseburg. If you don’t fish, hunt and camp, you might stay a little while but the novelty wears off.”
To lure doctors — particularly in times of a nationwide physician shortage — the VA has increased pay and offers to pay moving expenses, he said.
Last fiscal year, the VA clinic on Fifth Street saw 1,627 veterans; as of August this year, it had seen almost 1,450 patients. Many veterans are pleased because clinic offerings here might save them a trip to the Rogue River Valley for basic healthcare needs.
The VA is also in the midst of signing contracts with local providers to reduce trips veterans have to take to Roseburg, often times for a simple procedure such as an ingrown toenail or a blood draw — a major complaint veterans wanted addressed.
“Yesterday, I heard we were sending folks to Portland for oncology care,” Paxton said. “If you live in Brookings, you need to get your care in the community. That’s inhumane to be sent to Portland for any care.”
The Choice program that ramped up two years ago only to have its funding shrink five months ago is financially viable again, Paxton said, and will allow veterans to obtain primary health care here.
“I don’t want you guys traveling 100 miles to get primary care,” Paxton said. “I wouldn’t want my dad doing that.”
A new computer system will address another major concern veterans have regarding the difficulty in transferring medical records and the inability of a new doctor to examine existing records.
“It’s absolutely going to be fantastic,” said Paul Fleming, the acting associate director of the Roseburg VA. “We’re going to get that mesh we’ve been working on for years. It’ll solve a lot of problems. And the best news is that (the Western region) is getting it first.”
Veterans Wednesday still voice their concerns about personal challenges they’ve faced with the clinics; most of them were directed to speak with specific specialists after the meeting. Some said they didn’t like local phone calls being diverted to a call center in Roseburg or that messages still aren’t getting delivered.
“I called and was told to call back in a week; they were pretty busy today,” said veteran John Yost. “Another time they said they’d leave (a doctor) a note. Well, I don’t know if you use sticky notes and slap them on windshields, but they don’t work. It’s been an ongoing struggle for years.”
“It’s a terrible system,” Paxton admitted. “We continue to work on improvements but it’s not the best system.”
Others heaped praise on various individuals — something that rarely occurred two years ago in town hall meetings.
“That Sheila Albers; she’s the best we’ve had in 19 years,” said Vietnam veteran Bill Farrell of the local clinic’s social worker. “The prior person? All we did, it was like social hour. It’s no wonder her calendar is filling up.”
“Once at a town hall, I called you a bald-faced liar and told you to prove me wrong,” another veteran told Paxton, regarding the opening of a new clinic here. “Well, you proved me wrong. I’m going to say I’m sorry, because I’m sitting in this beautiful building and I was wrong.”
— Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org.