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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Veterans voice concerns over reduced ER hours, staff

Military veterans are worried that reduced hours at Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s emergency room could delay access to health care and lead to unexpected medical bills.

About 20 veterans aired concerns Monday during a town hall meeting in the wake of the VA’s elimination this month of full-time emergency care. As a replacement, the medical center’s emergency care is available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for walk-ins and referrals.

Another temporary change is that the VA is no longer accepting patients who would be delivered for ambulance emergencies. In those cases, such as traumas and other life-threatening complications, vets would need to go to one of the region’s fully equipped hospital emergency rooms.

The VA lost four of its five ER doctors in the past 10 months, said Chief of Medicine Dr. Kimberly Morris. To maintain patient care levels, the hospital needed to reduce hours, she said.

Morris said the goal is to restore full-day ER care by spring, when the VA can bring in more doctors. One has been hired and four more are needed.

But several vets at the meeting told Morris they were worried the goal of restoring ER care by next spring might not happen.

Retired U.S. Army special forces veteran Don Eisinger told the group he’s heard from other vets that they fear the deadline won’t be met.

“It’s the ambiguity. People just want some closure and want to know that there is a sure date,” Eisinger said.

Another Army vet, identifying himself only as Randy, told Morris that the center needs to hire compassionate, fully qualified doctors. “Not just warm bodies,” he said.

Morris said the VA has hired national recruitment firm Merritt Hawkins to find candidates.

It’s important that the process vet candidates and look for the best fit, she said.

The medical center also is reaching out to both the University of Washington and Washington State University to work with officials expanding medical residency programs for doctors in Eastern Washington.

Introducing those residents to VA medical care is one way to get them motivated, Morris added.

“When you expose new learners to a certain way of practicing medicine, such as the VA system, they get familiar with that system and consider it as a career option,” she said.

Asked by another veteran what explained the departures of ER doctors, Morris said it was a variety of reasons, including one former ER doctor arrested on charges of child rape.

Salaries paid by the VA are competitive, she said.

Bob Wallace, a Snohomish veteran and American Legion service officer, came to the Spokane meeting to raise concerns about unexpected costs.

He said veterans who’d normally come to Spokane for ER treatment now face new regulations that affect their coverage and potential medical expenses.

“A lot of our vets are in their 70s, and if they and their wives have to go by ambulance to a (non-VA) emergency room at a hospital, things can be confusing for them,” Wallace said.

Many times the care vets get in such cases is not fully covered, Wallace said. He cited one West Side vet who went to an ER for treatment and was billed for thousands of dollars the VA wouldn’t cover, he said.

VA officials said vets who go to hospital ERs need to contact the VA within 72 hours of treatment.

Christine Haas, who manages VA eligibility matters, told Wallace the amount of coverage often varies with each ER visit.

“It’s going to be looked at on a case-by-case basis,” she said, but the key step ensuring some coverage is the call within 72 hours.