Sacramento area veterans had a chance to sound off at a town hall with the director of the Mather VA hospital Wednesday night amidst controversy surrounding Veterans Affairs hospitals.
It was the first in a series of public forums organizers said they planned months before the high profile controversies came to light at the Phoenix VA and other facilities across the country. During the forum, veterans gave them an earful.
Veterans spanning the generations and different wars gathered looking for answers to growing complaints. Among their issues was the veterans' first point of contact with the VA over the phone.
"I feel like there's this attitude of, 'this is the answer. And if it's not the answer you like, I refuse to look elsewhere to try to help you,'" one veteran described.
Hospital director David Stockwell immediately acknowledged the problem.
"I can personally use words like, atrocious, embarrassing, confusing, inconsistent, to describe some of the experiences that our patients have when they call us on the phone," Stockwell said.
Stockwell insists that improving the call center is a top priority.
"I can commiserate that I wish it weren't the way that it is today," Stockwell said. "It's not honoring to patients the way that we have our phone system work today, and we need to do better."
Others brought up limits placed on veterans getting a second opinion from outside the VA system.
"They have a test that the VA does not offer, why should he be penalized and have to pay for that?" one veteran asked.
Stockwell blamed the limitations on costs.
"Anyone can get an opinion from a variety of medical folks about a lot of different things and pick a course of action," Stockwell said. "So, the VA's responsibility to our patients is to make sure that we have competent, trained professionals with the right tools to get the job done."
Several veterans praised the care received at the Mather facility, even asking why first responders don't bring them there.
"In some counties in the country, you can call 911, get an ambulance and be delivered at the hospital of your choice including the VA, you can't do that in Sacramento County," one veteran complained.
Stockwell said county officials insist on taking patients to state-licensed facilities instead of the federal VA, but he said they're in talks to resolve the issue.
"Our lawyers are actually meeting and talking to their lawyers," Stockwell said. "It is on my to do list to try and get the ambulances to bring patients here."
Some veterans complained about the lack of publicity for Wednesday's town hall. Stockwell told the crowd they simply used word of mouth to keep the town hall small as a test run for future forums.