'We've got a good system here'

Andrew Fierro credits the West Los Angeles Department of Veterans Affairs and other veterans support groups for helping him rebound when he was laid off from his trucking job.

“I needed to get a little help here because I was out on the road for a while, but my medication refills never stopped,” said Fierro, a member of Hollywood Post 43, who was referred to US Vets by VA when he got laid off from a trucking job. “I’ve been here now for two years. Because of VA and PATH (People Assisting The Homeless), I have my own place. I’m working full time. Sometimes I lose my job and I go back out and get a new one. All because I get my medication and I can go back out there.”

Fierro shared his story at the recent System Worth Saving visit at the West Los Angeles VA, which was conducted by The American Legion. It is one of about 12 site visits the Legion coordinates each year to VA medical centers throughout the country to hear from veterans firsthand about their personal experiences. Legion staff and volunteers host a town hall, meet with veterans and their families, and address issues and concerns with VA administrators and employees.

“Often times we hear a lot of negative stories about VA, but here’s a positive story about a veteran who said he’s moved around from VA to VA, they move his medical records immediately,” American Legion VA&R deputy director of health care Roscoe Butler said, referring to Fierro. “You don’t hear stories like that all the time. That’s one of the things that VA needs to do a better job at, telling its story. No one can do it better than the VA; whether it’s good or bad veterans need to know, and hear it from VA. If something happens, what we want to hear is the solutions. How are you going to take care of it? The media can’t tell us that.”

Staff and volunteers examine how each facility uses resources, noting the successes, challenges and limitations. These observations are compiled into after-action reports distributed to members of Congress and VA officials, and posted online.

“This is where we get local information on the VA facility that we are going to be visiting for the next two days,” said Howard Darter, national Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission member. “We start off with a town hall, talking to many of the people that actually use the facility, people in the community, some of the politicians. We find out what they think, get their ideas. Find out what’s wrong, what’s right, and then we spend the next two days interviewing the staff, the workers, the patients of the facility here in L.A.”

This process nationally has delivered a new understanding about the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement throughout the system. The executive staff of the West Los Angeles VA were present to listen to the experiences of the veterans who use the facility.

“There are a lot of good stories out there, there are some bad,” Darter said. “We want to hear both.”

During the Los Angeles visit, the town hall meeting brought mostly positive feedback from the veterans who use the local facility. “Truly, most veterans are satisfied with the care that they receive,” Butler said. “Sometimes they say there is difficulty getting access into the system, but when they gain access into the system, most veterans are satisfied with their care.”

Another veteran who shared his story at the town hall was a deep-sea diver from Chicago who served 24 years in the Navy.

While diving in 1989, Robert T. Kelly Jr., Los Angeles County Council vice commander, suffered decompression sickness when the Navy and VA really didn’t know how to deal with a very rare form of the bends called dysbaric osteonecrosis.

Kelly recently had problems getting his much needed medication and was able to express his concerns to VA executive staff during the town hall. He appreciates the variety of alternative treatments that his local VA provides. “The new programs here in West LA, I go to them all, they are phenomenal,” Kelly said. “I was able to reduce two-thirds of my medication by just going to tai chi and acupuncture, mindfulness-based stress reduction. They are great programs.”

Patricia Jackson-Kelley, a national legislative council member and American Legion Department of California women’s outreach coordinator, expressed her concern for women veterans.

“My concern is all veterans, but I have a significant investment in the women’s veteran population,” Kelley said. “I have some concern about the women’s veteran presence in the community.”

Legion staff members use this type of information to urge Congress and the presidential administration to fully fund VA at a level that will enable all eligible veterans to receive quality health care in a timely manner.

After the town hall, The American Legion team spent the following two days at the VA facility to see the various programs for themselves. Part of the visit included meeting with program managers, touring facilities and interacting with staff members.

The medical center completed a detailed questionnaire before the System Worth Saving visit. That information, along with material gathered from the town hall meeting, facility tours, and interviews with employees and supervisors, was used in a conversation with the executive staff to discuss best practices and challenges.

“California is very advanced when compared to some of the other areas,” Darter said. “We’re doing really well. We’ve got a good system here in Los Angeles. We’ve got the same problems that all of the other ones have, sometimes lack of staff, lack of staff in the correct positions, but L.A. is doing quite well.”