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1st District — Lack of attendance shifts to a roundtable conversation about current concerns

There was some tension expected at a veteran’s forum hosted by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici Monday, but the only veteran to attend expressed solely positive experiences.

“I (don’t) have a problem with the VA,” said VFW Commander Wayne Miller. “So far every time I go there, they’re nice, they get me in, get me out, so I don’t face any problems myself.”

Since Miller was the only participant not associated with the event, the format was altered to more of a roundtable in lieu of the forum originally planned. Joined by three Veteran Affairs staff members and the executive director from Returning Veterans, Bonamici acted as a moderator of sorts guiding a brief discussion on the issues facing VA clinics in Oregon.Bonamici

The issue of wait times has been brought forth recently in the news, with some outlets reporting up to a year wait time before services are provided. Locally, those numbers appear to be less drastic. Floss Mambourg, acting deputy director for the Portland VA Medical Center, said for first-time enrollee’s applying to see a primary physician, wait times are averaging 32 days in Salem, 14 days in Hillsboro and 12 days in West Linn.

“What you’ve heard on the news is how we measure to 14 days. I’m not going to get into that murky water,” Mambourg said. “There is differences depending on staffing available at that clinic.”

Bonamici asked if the VA had been informing veterans of these different wait times so they could decide which clinic to visit.

“That’s a very important conversation we need to have,” Mambourg said. “When we started into this process we had so many veterans in that queue we weren’t good at making those calls. That’s a change we’ve made in the last two to three months. I know it coincides with everything happening with the news … but the truth is it also coincides with the planning we’ve been making for the last two years.”

Some of the long wait times cited could have been awaiting a decision if veterans were eligible for the services in the first place, she said.

“The average is 150 days,” said Chris Marshall, Portland VA regional director. “There will be a number of claims older than that and some less as well. Last year (we started a) very focused effort to start with the oldest claims and work down to the newest ones.”

Marshall said locally, the inventory of claims was 13,588 in May 2013 and is down to 9,300 currently.

“Which is an impressive drop … but there’s still a ways to go,” he said. “We continue to have a really high quality; we haven’t sacrificed quality for speed.”

As for the projection of increased VA demands in the next five years as soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines return from Afghanistan, all representatives said they are doing their best to increase resources.

“We’re working on it, but it’s going to take some time,” said Belle Landau, Returning Veterans executive director, a nonprofit that arranges for free care at the individual level.

Cameron Smith, Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs director, said it may be a matter of re-allocating resources. This could mean closing clinics that aren’t seeing use and placing those funds in other areas.

“I’ve committed to do everything that I can to make sure we get something out of the conference committee that is helpful and that addresses the needs of the communities,” Bonamici said. “I actually learned a lot and I appreciate everyone being . I know we’re competing with a sunny afternoon but this is really helpful if we all go back to our community and share this information.”

Bonamici hosted a similar forum Tuesday in Astoria and has one slated in Beaverton July 7 before returning to Washington, D.C. July 8 for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing “VA Whistleblowers: Exposing inadequate service provided to veterans and ensuring appropriate accountability.”

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