C.O. veterans still must go to Portland for now

Push is on for option to see private care providers

Bend veteran hopes for more local healthcare

BEND, Ore. - The trek to Portland for medical care is a daily ritual for Central Oregon veterans, as the High Desert's Bend VA clinic offers some services, but not everything former servicemembers need.

"You couldn't get  prostate surgery, you couldn't get knee replacement, hip replacement, you couldn't get heart surgery," Bend veterans advocate Dick Tobiason said Wednesday.

Other full-service hospitals and specialty clinics in Central Oregon are not usually an option for veterans using Veterans Affairs health care.

But that could be changing in some areas across the nation, as a spotlight glares on the VA amid scandals and reports that dozens of patients may have died waiting for care in Phoenix and perhaps elsewhere.

"Thank God for whistle-blowers who have opened this thing up," Tobiason  said.

President Obama and top VA officials are pledging greater access to private clinics, specifically for veterans who've endured long wait times to get needed care.

Central Oregon veterans say the national attention is an opportunity to demand better care in rural areas like the High Desert.

"It's frustrating, maddening and stressful" to have to cross the mountains for needed care, Bend veteran David Levine said.

Levine said he needs surgery for carpel tunnel syndrome,  among other treatments that are currently only available in Portland. There are free van rides to the VA Medical Center, but it makes for a long trip.

"When you're in a lot of pain, and you have to ride for hours and hours and hours, it's excruciating, it's painful," Levine said. "And the added stress of not getting care locally only adds to your illness."

Tobiason has been one of the group volunteering to drive veterans to Portland through the Disabled Veterans of America's van service for decades. He said the daily trips are not just wasteful and expensive, but can be dangerous.

"It's a 12 hours round-trip, and we're taking 12 veterans, and they're going to be there for 20 to 30 minutes for appointments," Tobiason said. "And then we all come back here in the dark and the snow, and slippery conditions. We've had accidents."

Tobiason said the trips are hard on the veterans who use the services, but harder on those who cannot.

"What about the veterans who are entitled to the care but don't use it because of the drive?" Tobiason asked.

Veterans  like Levine, who said because of the hardship of the trip to Portland, he's put off his surgery for more than a year.

Levine said he hopes the VA's promise to offer more local care can come to Central Oregon.

"If they really valued us as veterans, then they should allow us to seek private care," Levine said.

NewsChannel 21 contacted the Portland VA Medical Center for comment on whether any new changes would come for how rural Oregon veterans get care.

Spokesman Dan Herrigstad said experts on the issue weren't readily available for comment, but he said the VA will always perform medical treatments in-house whenever possible.

Herrigstad said the Portland center doesn't have hefty wait times for veterans that have become an issue elsewhere -- and because of that, he didn't anticipate there would be much changes to how Bend veterans get services.

He also said that the center does outsource care locally for emergency situations, certain wait times, and other instances when it is efficient to contract privately.

However, in many situations, Herrigstad said shuttling veterans to the Portland hospital is more efficient for the VA.

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