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VA center clarifies services

Officials at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Spokane have sent new letters to 23,000 local veterans warning that the hospital does not offer emergency care.

The letters, the second mailing in six months, are following reports of death and injuries to veterans who have shown up at the hospital’s urgent care center after hours or with illnesses too severe to treat.

Critics, including state politicians, had demanded that the VA do a better job of informing veterans about reduced hours and service changes that took effect in July.

That was precisely the point of the three-page letter dated Nov. 28 and mailed last week, said Jane Schilke, associate director of the Spokane hospital.

“I think any time we can get information out to the veterans, it helps to keep them informed of what’s going on,” she said.

Such a letter might well have helped an 83-year-old veteran who collapsed and later died outside the VA’s urgent care center in September, the man’s widow said Tuesday.

“I would have caught it in the mail, and I would have seen it,” said Marilyn Fuller, wife of the late Clinton L. “Foxx” Fuller, a three-war veteran whose death sparked a wave of concern.

Marilyn Fuller said she didn’t recall a June letter outlining changes in the VA’s urgent care policies, and that it likely was hidden in a drawer.

Clinton Fuller arrived at the center on Sept. 30, five minutes after closing time, and friends charged that he wasn’t treated promptly or properly by medical officials.

But VA officials said they offered Fuller care that followed best practices for that hospital and others in the region. They called 911, and ambulance and paramedic crews responded within minutes with appropriate staff and equipment. Still, Fuller’s death prompted complaints from other veterans who said they were turned away in emergencies.

Copies of the most recent letter were sent to all veterans treated in Spokane within the past two years, Schilke said. It emphasized that the hospital’s urgent care clinic is open only between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and that it offers services for “minor medical conditions,” including cuts and burns, breaks, sprains, fever and cold.

Patients with potentially serious conditions, including paralysis, vision problems, confusion, dizziness, severe headache or heart attack symptoms, are urged to call 911.

The letter advises veterans that their care at a non-VA emergency center might be paid for by the VA. Last year, the Spokane hospital spent nearly $8 million on care for veterans at non-VA facilities, according to a federal audit released in February.

It advises veterans to contact Robert Van Bommel, chief of health care administration, at (509) 434-7500 with questions about emergency care.

So far, Van Bommel has received 10 to 15 calls a day, or about 50 overall, Schilke said. Most veterans are concerned about payment for emergency care, she said.

The cost to send the latest letter was about $15,000, Schilke estimated. It was sent after Washington lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray demanded that VA officials improve communications with veterans.

Neither McMorris nor Murray immediately responded to requests for comment about the effort Tuesday.


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