Roseburg Veterans Administrator interim Director Dave Whitmer might be in for an earful Wednesday when he hosts a town hall meeting.
The meeting is slated for 5 to 7 p.m. at the veteran’s clinic on Railroad Street in Brookings.
Whitmer is serving as the interim director in the Roseburg district for a year to clean up the mess veterans say was left behind by his predecessor Doug Paxton. And while veterans here realize he’s only been here three months, they plan to let him know of the ongoing problems they’re having trying to get health care services.
Bill Harris has been sitting by the phone for weeks, waiting for it to ring.
He’s awaiting a call from an orthopedic doctor at the Roseburg Veterans Administration so he can schedule an appointment to get a referral to get an MRI to fix the pain in his leg, knee and ankle.
No one calls, despite his having left numerous messages.
He’s running out of options.
“Now it’s pretty severe,” the 73-year-old Air Force veteran said.
The 73-year-old Crescent City man suffered a leg injury on the job with the city of Santa Monica in 1996 and had surgery on his knee. The associated ankle injury was never treated with anything more than painkillers, he said.
Over the years, the situation degenerated.
So Harris went to Curry Medical Center in Brookings.
“The radiologist said he saw no signs of a current fracture,” Harris said, as if the provider were stating the obvious. “I have severe degeneration in my ankle, my knee is all screwed up and the screw in my right fibula is broken.”
With no resolution presented, he went to the Brookings VA clinic.
“I told her about the pain, and she said, ‘OK, but you also have a skin condition because you’re diabetic,” Harris said. “She seemed to insist I see a vascular surgeon. I told the nurse I was having problems in my bones — my ankle hurts like crazy, my leg hurts like crazy, my knee wants to fold.”
Three weeks later, he tried to schedule an X-ray, but his referring doctor wrote the wrong orders. By the time that was corrected, the order had expired.
“I was an unhappy camper at that point,” Harris said.
The X-ray was eventually taken, but no one’s diagnosed it yet, much less helped him with the pain.
“I went to the emergency room (at Sutter Coast Hospital in Crescent City) because the pain got so severe, I didn’t care,” Harris said. “But they wouldn’t admit me because it was an orthopedic problem, and an orthopedic doctor isn’t available except on Tuesdays. They weren’t sure they could even get me an appointment — which they haven’t — and nothing gets started until he sees me — and then, only if he wants to take me as a patient.”
So he calls. He leaves messages. And he waits by the phone.
He’s tenacious; many just give up.
Not the only one
Problems echoed over the years resonate today: lack of communication, fabricated records, mislabeled prescription bottles, requirements that veterans take a one-way, four hour drive to Roseburg — or sometimes Portland — to spend 10 minutes with a health care provider, the endless waits for phone calls.
Mike Berns of Brookings has been trying for years to get a standing MRI of his back — the only procedure by which the underlying problem can be seen, he says.
The MRI he had taken in Brookings didn’t show anything because it was taken with him lying down, he said. The MRI taken in Roseburg was fuzzy. He ultimately went to Portland for a standing MRI, paying for it with other insurance.
“The social worker at the Brookings clinic cannot keep up with the needs of the veterans in this community without working 15 to 20 hours a week of unpaid overtime,” Berns said. “She says she does it to do a good job for her veterans.”
They all know Berns at the Roseburg VA.
Berns contacted U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio last year to complain, and when the congressman saw the conditions in Roseburg, he demanded immediate change.
Paxton was fired — and was to be transferred to a VA hospital in Atlanta, which declined to take him, saying they had enough problems of their own with the growing opioid epidemic.
Whitmer was hired in February to make systemic changes and recruit a “solid” director, he said.
“It’s been clear from the number of troubling reports from veterans served in that system that change is needed to provide the top-notch care those veterans deserve,” said U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley in a joint press release in February. “We hope this change marks a needed step forward to achieve the goal of transforming it into a place worthy of the veterans who rely on it for quality health care.”
Veterans are cautiously optimistic. Many have said they learned from Paxton — who promised transparency and solutions — that promises can be broken. He’d told them in town hall meetings in Brookings that he was going to clean house — and even gave veterans his cellphone number to call if they were having problems of any sort.
He cleaned house, DeFazio said — of all the qualified people.
Whitmer said the Roseburg VA isn’t the first facility for which he’s had to clean house.
He hails from Florida, where he oversaw a region that covered that state, Southern Georgia and Puerto Rico; eight facilities, 65 clinics, 28,000 employees and operated on a $5.5 billion budget.
“People might have questioned the sanity of anyone who applied for this job after Paxton left,” Whitmer said. “A lot of changes needed to be made. That’s half the battle, making those hard calls. My interest is in the long-term success of this health care system.”
Then he arrived in Oregon.
“I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as far as the newspapers said,” Whitmer said. “There are challenges; there were staff that needed to move on, be realigned. We needed to improve access, and we’re addressing all those issues. In comparison to what I thought I was getting into, these are very manageable challenges.”
He’s making leadership position changes, communicating with staff, veterans and the public, and working through the challenges, he said. He attends three to four veteran meetings a week to get input from them.
In Brookings, the new clinic has two permanent physicians — a husband-wife team from Salem — and a new nurse. While out on the coast next week, he plans to meet with Sutter Coast, Curry General and Bay Area hospitals and the clinics in Brookings, Bandon and Coos Bay.
“I think I can help this system make changes and be more prosperous going forward,” he said.
In Roseburg, he’s “replaced key leaders,” hiring a new chief of surgery, staff and medicine and an emergency room director. The last position he’ll replace will be his.
“We’re just getting started,” Whitmer said. “The first three months, we’re rebuilding relationships, rebuilding the trust. The next few months will be internal processes, document management, tightening up the ship. The last six months? Recruitment. We need to get improvement before we get a new director.”
Whitmer said there is pent-up demand in Brookings for services at the new clinic.
“But we’re making all the changes to address their concerns,” he said. “I want to keep (staff) happy. It’s a good group; they’re getting gelled as a team. They have to work through the challenges as well.
“I know the health care we provide is the best,” Whitmer said. “We just need to make changes to deliver on those promises to our veterans.”
Harris hopes to get an appointment for an orthopedic consultation.
“I wonder if it’s because I haven’t done all the preliminary stuff like an MRI,” he mused, noting the irony that he can’t get an appointment to get a referral for one. “Next thing you know, it’ll be July and I’m still hobbling around.
“Nobody takes much of a responsibility,” he added.
Recently, he decided to call his veterans representative — that person is on vacation.
He called back to get the patient’s advocate: “It sends you directly to voicemail; doesn’t even ring,” Harris said. “I left my information and they never called me back.”
Last week, he called an on-duty nurse and asked if there was anything he could do for him.
At first, the nurse said an MRI couldn’t be taken because he had metal screws in his leg. The nurse called back later, however, and said those screws were medical grade steel and Harris could have an MRI after all.
“I haven’t got a date yet,” he said with a sigh. “I’m waiting for someone to call me back. This is unbelievable. It’s insane. What gets me is, if I was stray animal, I’d be in the OR the next week. Everyone keeps saying they’re on it, they’re working it, we’ll call you right back. For two weeks, I’ve been sitting next to the phone.”