WASILLA -- Veterans flooded into the Menard Memorial Sports Center on Wednesday night with lists of grievances about the Veterans Affairs Clinic in Wasilla, from staffing to scheduling to overall dysfunction.
"I would rather go into the hay barn if I knew they had the right staff," Charlie Thacker, a Vietnam War veteran and Houston resident, told U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski inside the packed room.
The meeting was Murkowski's latest attempt to zero in on the Wasilla clinic's staffing shortage while, nationally, the Veterans Health Administration remains thrust into the spotlight for corrosive management and hidden waitlists. In June, Murkowski called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct an independent investigation into the Wasilla clinic after, she said, she saw the community's morale and frustration unraveling.
"It should not take an act of Congress to get our vets good care," Murkowski said Wednesday.
Thacker, 66, said he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on his 18th birthday -- Sept. 1, 1965. Six months later, he deployed to Vietnam. He completed his service in 1968 and started receiving health care through the VA. He described the health care system as inconsistent and staffed with tired physicians.
"I praise the doctors because they're overworked," he said.
The Wasilla clinic's only permanent physician resigned this spring. At first, three contracted doctors covered the more than 1,200 patients. One doctor's contract expired June 27. The contracts for the two remaining physicians are up on July 10 and Aug. 28, said Samuel Hudson, spokesman for the Alaska VA Healthcare System, in an email.
The issues Thacker talked about in the room of veterans spread beyond the Wasilla clinic.
A few months ago, he said, he had an operation scheduled at the Anchorage VA clinic. One day before the operation, an administrator called to say his anesthesiologist had jury duty. They scheduled it for two weeks later. Then, before the rescheduled appointment, he was called again and told his doctor had jury duty. It took more than two months before he was operated on, Thacker said.
"I want quality service," he said. "Every vet wants quality service because that's what we were guaranteed, but they're not doing it."
Murkowski quietly listened and took notes for much of the evening, asking veterans to fill out privacy forms if they wanted her office to look into their individual cases. When talking to Murkowski, some veterans cried; others yelled and cursed when describing the quality of care and the runaround they received from doctors. Many declined to give their names, saying they feared retaliation from the VA.
Dixie Banner, a 50-year-old Wasilla veteran, had advice for those dealing with the VA. She said the key to good care is persistence. She said she will call the VA consistently, every few weeks, until she has an appointment scheduled.
"The VA is a good hospital, but you have to take personal responsibility," Banner said after the meeting. "You've got to be on the pulse."
The report Murkowski ordered for the Wasilla clinic has a due date of Feb. 1, 2015. Hudson said in an email, "The Alaska VA will cooperate with any investigation directed by the Veterans Administration."
As of June 30, the Alaska VA has 3,004 patients who are receiving care from primary care facilities outside of the system, Hudson said.
Contact Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org .
By Tegan Hanlon