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Local vets laud, decry VA system

VA leadership, congresswoman answer questions, hear stories at town hall meeting

At a meeting hosted at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital Monday, an auditorium full of veterans, their children and spouses spoke candidly to Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier and Palo Alto VA Director Lisa Freeman about their experiences with the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, which includes the Menlo Park VA campus.

Some lauded the VA system, and others decried long wait times and a lack of communication.

One of the first speakers, whose wife is a veteran, called the Palo Alto VA "a shining example of what the VA system should be." Another man said that in 15 years he's never experienced any wait times. Sandra O'Neill, a former Navy nurse, said she has had three hip replacements within the local VA health care system since 2006 and has received "beyond-call-of-duty kind of care."

"I've gotten just excellent, quality care and timely care," she said. "I'm especially happy that they have a special women's veterans center, and I believe that this medical center pioneered that concept and made it available to women veterans."

Such positive experiences contrasted sharply with those of a man who said he waited 13 months to get an appointment so instead sought outside treatment; a Marine Corps veteran who said he waited six years for a hip replacement and called the process "inhumane"; a Vietnam War veteran who has been coming to the Palo Alto VA for 20 years and criticized the Patient Advocacy Program as "a listening post and not an action post."

Director Freeman acknowledged the institution's difficulty with wait times, processes and "a culture of compliance." She said the Palo Alto VA Health Care System in May had two groups of more than 20 veterans on electronic wait lists, which are designated for those who have waited for more than 90 days for care. The two groups were neurosurgery and dental, with more than 200 veterans waiting for dental appointments. Freeman said the entire neurosurgery backlog has been worked down to zero, but she would only say that the VA had reached out to almost all of the patients in need of dental appointments and knew that fewer than 70 had not been seen yet but were on track to receive care.

Ms. Freeman also admitted that Palo Alto VA's scheduling software, now 30 years old, is antiquated and must be updated. She acknowledged the need for an updated, state-of-the-art phone system but said a limited budget and government-imposed red tape make it difficult for individual VA's to make necessary purchases, however large or small.

Another common concern raised was communication. One man, speaking for his father, a 90-year-old World War II veteran, said his father was not aware of the full spectrum of services he could access at the VA. He said he lost his hearing the Battle of the Bulge in the mid-1940s and spent "thousands of dollars" on hearing aids and treatment at local clinics because he didn't think the VA would cover his care.

"(Veterans) don't like talking about what happened in the service," he said. "They're very proud. They think they can take care of themselves. ... I have never seen an effort by the VA to let the veterans, whether it's the older veterans or the new veterans, know of all the things that are available for them."

Ms. Freeman said she completely agrees that the VA needs to improve its outreach efforts, though she did not offer specific remedies.

"We could do a much better job of advertising what the VA offers and who it offers it to," she said. "I have had the same experience with my uncles who are both World War II veterans (and) who just thought the VA is for anybody but them."

Ms. Speier and Ms. Eshoo, sitting at a table at the front of the room next to Ms. Freeman, continually probed the VA director on the hospital's efforts to reach homeless veterans, its funding challenges and the division between internal and external care, among other issues raised. Ms. Eshoo said all the processes need to be more "seamless" and reflect how patients live their daily lives and need health care.

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