WASILLA -- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald held a well-attended town hall meeting Thursday night, where Alaska veterans voiced their complaints about the health care system that many said is failing its service members.
Roughly 300 people came to see McDonald speak and field questions at Wasilla's Menard Sports Center. McDonald stood alone on the stage, listening with his arms by his sides as veterans told their stories and aired their complaints about the agency.
McDonald replaced former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned in May 2014 amid problems with VA clinics across the country. The town hall meeting was designed to let veterans voice their concerns.
At a press conference in Anchorage on Tuesday, McDonald had admitted that the VA had lost the trust of many veterans. That mistrust was apparent Thursday, as McDonald listened to complaints of many who said they had been mistreated or their problems were ignored.
Air Force veteran Frank Bird said before the meeting that he had come because he had been "messed around with referral, referral, referral around my knee," which he said needs a full replacement surgery. Bird had come to the meeting on crutches "just to find out why it takes so long" to get proper treatment.
When retired Army Lt. Col. Barbara Bachmeier spoke about the challenges she faced with VA vocational rehabilitation, McDonald referred her to a table in the back of the room to talk to someone about veteran hiring programs.
At that suggestion, an echo rose up -- "They won't listen" -- from a few people in the crowd.
McDonald began Thursday's meeting discussing the challenges the VA faces. In 2014, the agency faced a "crisis" that he said was largely due to the changing demographics of the population. The veteran population is aging, McDonald said, and is set to reach more than 10 million over the age of 65 this year. Disability claims are "skyrocketing," he said.
Meanwhile, the VA's infrastructure is outdated and it is facing staffing shortages. What's needed is an increase in the budget, McDonald said. "We need all that from members of Congress," McDonald said.
He spoke of the Choice Care system, designed to reduce waiting times by allowing veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA health care facility to receive services from non-VA doctors. But in Alaska, it has added to the bureaucratic red tape and increased wait time by about a week.
Veteran Mike Lindbeck told McDonald that the health care he received as a disabled vet has been "fantastic ... until now," with the implementation of the Choice Care system. "It took three months for me to get in," he said. "It never used to take more than three weeks."
The most heated testimony came from disabled veteran Joe Oswald, who said that the VA "is part of the reason some people commit suicide."
The agency "treat(s) us like garbage," Oswald said as the crowd applauded and shouted.
McDonald spent much of the meeting hearing complaints, referring veterans who voiced their stories to employees set up at tables in the back row to help manage their health care or rehabilitation. While he offered condolences, McDonald mostly listened, offering no immediate fixes to the Choice Care system or other issues.
Undiscussed at the town hall was the status of the Mat-Su VA clinic, which has struggled to find a permanent care provider and has faced delayed and diminished access to health care, according to a report released last month.
The clinic is still seeking a full-time physician, said Shawn Bransky, associate director of the Alaska VA. The clinic has a nurse practitioner on staff but no doctor, he said. The clinic's last remaining doctor resigned in May 2014, citing an "excessive workload."
Bransky said the agency is offering "considerable incentives" for physicians and is trying to find "somebody that's going to stay" at the clinic.
Not everyone who attended the meeting felt anger toward the VA. Navy veteran Dennis Brown said after the meeting that McDonald was "doing a good job."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing