Reps. Herrera Beutler, Roe Hold Roundtable on Veterans Affairs Issues


Long wait times. Prescriptions not getting filled. Claims not addressed until after a veteran dies. Trouble getting to the nearest clinic.

These are some of the issues with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that veterans discussed Saturday morning with Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, at 40 Et 8, a nonprofit bingo parlor and veterans organization in Hazel Dell.

As of September, she said, more than 8.5 percent of veterans are still waiting more than 30 days to receive care at both the Portland and Vancouver VA campuses.

The congresswoman held the roundtable with Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who is chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs and was visiting area VA campuses. He served two years in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Vietnam War.

"The United States of America spends more money on its veterans than every other nation in the world put together," Roe said. "It is a not lack of money that the VA has -- I can flatly tell you that. A lot of it is a management issue and how the money is spent."

The Committee on Veterans Affairs looks at where the VA is failing and where it's doing a good job. There are 168 VA medical centers, more than 800 outpatient clinics across the country and about 340,000 employees, he said. Roe encouraged those attending Saturday's event to tell Herrera Beutler about issues at the VA, which can be investigated. After hearing of an issue at the Spokane VA campus, an investigative team was sent out.

"They're fixing everything that should've been fixed five years ago," said Roe, who visited the campus Friday.

Despite being committee chairman, he's encountered his own issues at the VA. The VA called Roe three days after he'd buried his wife (who died of cancer) and told him she was eligible to be buried at the Mountain Home National Cemetery in Tennessee.

"I can say it now and kind of chuckle at how they did it, but at the time it was very hurtful when I got that call," he said.

A friend who served in the Air Force in Thailand and developed cancer as a result of exposure to Agent Orange didn't get his disability claim until 15 months after he died.

"That's wrong. We've got veterans out there waiting three, five, seven years. There are 470,000 claims out there that are under appeal," Roe said. "We hear what you're saying and we're trying to do something."

But, he said, change within the VA is like "turning an aircraft carrier around" because it's such a "big, slow organization."

Judy Russel, president of Clark County Veterans Assistance Center and a claims officer for the American Legion, said that many of her clients like the VA and are willing to wait more than 30 days to see their doctor, but there are still problems.

"Every day we see veterans who come in and talk about how long their appeals process is taking," she said.

When her husband needed to go to the emergency room because he couldn't breathe, it was an out-of-network claim that she said the VA initially denied. At first she also had trouble getting his prescription filled at the VA. Not every veteran has someone like her to advocate for them through the process.

It shouldn't be that way, Herrera Beutler said.

Matt Hoerner spent 22 years in the Army. After he retired, he struggled to hold down a job in the civilian world.

"What I discovered is running a tank platoon is nowhere similar to running a business," he said. "My struggle still continues to this day."

His problems started with the amount of time it took to get seen by a vocational rehabilitation specialist, and he knows he's not the only former soldier dealing with these kinds of issues. In another instance, he called the mental health clinic when he was in crisis saying he needed immediate help and they told him he could get an appointment for next month.

Another veteran in the crowd chimed in: "His story is my story."

Some recent legislative changes include the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act becoming law over the summer. The bill protects whistleblowers and gives the VA authority to remove employees for misconduct or performance reasons. A bill was recently introduced to amend the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 in order to improve treatment.

Roe said things are improving at the VA but those in D.C. won't know what the issues are in Southwest Washington and how to address them until people here notify Herrera Beutler.