Colorado Department Commander Terri L. Clinton addresses the crowd and shares some of her experience with the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System during a town hall at Leyden-Chiles-Wickersham Post 1 in Denver, Colo.(Photo by Lucas Carter)

Eastern Colorado VA director: ‘Denver is a tough, tough medical market for us’

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The American Legion held a town hall meeting on March 5 at American Legion Post 1 in Denver to hear feedback from local veterans about the quality of health care they receive through the Veterans Affairs (VA) Eastern Colorado Health Care System (ECHCS).

According to an article from the Denver Post, wait times at the eastern Colorado and Denver-area VA hospitals were among the worst in the nation as of last year. For primary care appointments, the average wait time at the Denver VA hospital alone was more than 18 days, compared to the national average of 4.9 days.

Even though VA data showed that more than 92 percent of all appointments completed in eastern Colorado were done within 30 days, it was still the lowest in the country as the national average was nearly 97 percent. As of last July, the average wait time for primary care appointments at VA hospitals and clinics within ECHCS was more than 12 days, the Denver Post also noted.

“We read, almost daily, notices of failings in our VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System – a lot of appointments not kept, patients turned away or patients dying because of having to wait inordinate lengths of time,” said Post 1 member Bernie Rogoff, an Air Force veteran who fought in the Korean War and currently serves as treasurer for the United Veterans Committee of Colorado. “Records show that for those using private (health maintenance organizations), it is for those patients to be kept waiting for weeks and even months to see primary and specialty care physicians.”

Fortunately, the Denver VA facility has improved with its mental health services. Average wait times for these appointments have decreased from 20 days in 2015 to less than nine days in 2017. However, that improvement was “still more than double the national average,” according to the Denver Post.

“The problem I have is they are so short in mental health with providers and counselors,” veteran Deborah Davis said. “Appointments have been cut down to 30 minutes. I go in there with (post-traumatic stress disorder) problems and 30 minutes doesn’t even begin to let me tell anything to my counselor.

“They also do not have adequate staffing in the lab. I was there to see my primary care doctor for my check-up (every six months) and I expected to have labs done so I fasted. But no – I had to come back 30 days later to have lab work done because there was one person in the lab, and it’s on an appointment basis only.”

The Denver Post also noted that ECHCS has been plagued by an array of veteran care issues, including “massive delays and cost overruns in constructing a new $1.7 billion facility in Aurora” as well as “critical shortages in medical personnel – doctors, physician assistants and licensed practical nurses – (that) make it difficult to keep up with the growing demand Colorado has seen from an increasing veteran population.”

Sallie Houser-Hanfelder, director of the Eastern Colorado VA Health Care System, responded to Davis’s concern about why it takes so long to fill vacancies. Hanfelder said ECHCS is working hard to fill its positions and will hire more lab phlebotomists who are not contractors.

“When I got here two years ago, we were not competitive in hiring either physicians, nurses or medical technicians. We have not kept up with the pace of the private sector,” Hanfelder said. “Mental health folks are hard to find. We’ve done a couple of things to increase our success rate. We’ve increased pay – nurses got a 20-percent pay raise when I got here after we did our salary surveys. They hadn’t had a pay raise in seven years.

“Denver is a tough, tough medical market for us. We compete against (private sector hospitals like Kaiser Permanente). Kaiser pays anesthesiologists half a million dollars right out of the shoot. We lost two (anesthesiologists to Kaiser) in the last four to five months.”

Other means by which ECHCS has increased its success rate is establishing relocation, recruitment and retention centers. Hanfelder said the VA pays up to $120,000 to ease the cost burden for those participants.

“We’re working really hard to fill our positions and we will continue to do that,” she said.

Rogoff said the VA has the most modern diagnostics in the nation. For Rogoff, the new Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., which is slated to open later this year in August, will provide the finest diagnostic research and treatment for veterans.

“It’s 1.2 million square feet,” Hanfelder said. “We’ve got a bunch of groups working on how we transport people and how we move supplies. We’re also going to get a veterans’ focus group out there to say ‘this is what we think’ and ‘are we doing it right’ from a veteran’s standpoint.”

Speaking of doing things right, Navy combat veteran Nick Romano of Post 178 in Lakewood, Colo., was able to overcome his demons – thanks to an alternative PTSD treatment that he received at the ECHCS Golden Outpatient Clinic. Romano said he is no longer taking prescribed medication for his PTSD.

“I didn’t know I had PTSD,” said Romano, who retired from the military in 2005. “I couldn’t sleep at night and thought it was normal. I used to throw pillows at whoever walked in the door when I was sleeping and thought it was normal. I knew something was wrong because I was having heart palpitations.

“I went to the Denver clinic and they put me on Xanax. This happened about two years ago and then they referred me to Golden. I sought mental help through what’s called Rewire Your Mind – it’s a fantastic class. It worked; no drugs and it got me to understand what my mind was doing. It’ll always be with me.”

Dan Szelkowski, a dual American Legion and Sons of The American Legion member, also praised the VA for helping him experience life anew following a cataract operation. “Five or six years ago, I was basically blind,” he said. “I have vision because of the VA.”

When it comes to the VA, Ralph Bozella, chairman of the Legion’s National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, said there’s no better health-care system for the nation’s veterans.

“We try to promote everything that’s good and positive about being a veteran, helping our veterans and advocacy for veterans,” said American Legion Department of Colorado Commander Terri Clinton. “If we don’t work together, we’re not going to be able to service our veterans.”

During the town hall, congressional representatives were on hand to take notes on the issues and concerns addressed. They included Maria Secrest, district representative for Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Kathryn Wirkus, a constituent services representative for Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.

Bozella announced the Legion will award a $16,000 check, through its Operation Comfort Warrior program, to the Denver VA hospital. He said half of that money will be used to get an organ for the chapel at the new Aurora VA facility, and the other half will go toward providing necessary resources and services.

“The other half is going to go toward their residential PTSD program, women’s clinic, gift cards for residents in the hospital for drug treatment and so on,” Bozella said. “We’re very pleased about that.”