Rick Proctor speaks during a town hall meeting at American Legion Post 31 in Shinnston, W.Va. (Photo by Steph Chambers)

The two sides to VA

Rick Proctor spent 10 years working in human resources at the Louis A. Johnson Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in Clarksburg, W.Va., before taking a disability retirement earlier this year. In that time, he saw two sides to VA: a health-care side that provides "world-class" care and an administrative side that he says is far from world-class.

Proctor, a U.S. Army and West Virginia National Guard veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, shared his personal view of the Clarksburg VAMC during Monday’s American Legion town hall meeting at Post 31 in Shinnston, W.Va.

“I don’t think the issue lies with patient care,” Proctor said. “VA patient care is about the best you can get in the whole world. It’s the administrative side of the house that’s pretty shady. (Clarksburg) had the second-longest wait time for mental health patients. There’s no excuse for that.

“If we come to find out somebody manipulated data or falsified government documents to boost their bonuses, then that person should be prosecuted.”

Proctor said while working at Clarksburg, he was asked to change numbers relating to the number of days an applicant spent in the hiring process. “There were specific performance measures needed to be met there,” he said. “Anyone in HR up there will tell you they’ve been, at one time, asked to fudge a number. I’ve seen it happen. It happens because it all comes down to money: bonuses, salary, whatever the case may be.

“That doesn’t apply to everybody. (Chief of Staff Glenn Snider) – best there is. (Associate Director for Patient Care Services Denise Boehm) – best I’ve ever met. But the administrative side, they’re pushing paper. That’s about all they do."

Proctor’s statements continued a common theme heard at the Legion’s various town hall meetings this summer: VA health care is good, but access sometimes is lacking. Approximately 30 people attended the meeting, including area veterans, and local VA health-care and benefits staff.

One veteran said many of the veterans he knows get their care at the Clarksburg VAMC and have no issues with their care. Another said his only issue has been that he once waited an hour in the emergency room before receiving treatment. Otherwise, “I have no complaints about the care or the doctors there.”

The quality of care is good, one veteran said, but there isn’t enough of it because of a shortage of doctors. Another veteran said that VA health care saved his life. Having spent 17 months in a military hospital, the same veteran said that the Clarksburg VAMC is "like the Waldorf Astoria” compared to the military hospital.

One veteran disagreed about the quality of care. Donald Friend of nearby Hepzibah, W.Va., said he has been trying to get new glasses at Clarksburg since 2012. He has had two eye exams; each one resulted in a faulty prescription for one of his eyes.

“They say, ‘You’ve got to wait six months before you come back for another examination,’” Friend said. “I’m still waiting. They said November of this year is when I get to come back. If you can’t even get a pair of glasses after the second try … they’re incompetent. This is the most incompetent group of people I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Friend also said that when he tries to contact the Patient Advocate Office at the Clarksburg VAMC, his calls are never returned. “A month will go by, six weeks, eight weeks, she never calls back,” he said. “When I ask her about it, she says, ‘I’ve been real busy.’ If she’s so busy, the least she can do is either call you or send you a letter saying, ‘Hey, I’m working on your situation.’”

Another person who spoke at the town hall meeting said he is a former employee at Clarksburg who now volunteers at the facility. He said that sometimes at the facility, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing – and sometimes seems as though it doesn’t want to know.

“There are very good employees there,” he said. “I do believe there are every professional people at Louis A. Johnson facility. Being said, that doesn’t mean there’s not work to be done. Sometimes (things) get pushed under the rug. “

The Legion will open up a Veterans Crisis Command Center at Post 31 at noon today. The center will be open until 8 p.m. and again from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday. Verna Jones, the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation director, urged all those in attendance facing problems with benefits or health-care appointment scheduling to come to the center.

“Take the opportunity while we are here,” Jones said. “We’re going to have VA personnel right here. You can sit in front of an American Legion service officer. They’ll look over some stuff for you and then sit you right in front of a VA employee who can help you with your claims.”

Jones said the town halls the Legion has conducted are critical to informing Congress about the fixes that should be implemented within VA. “We can advocate for you in front of Congress … as we have for years,” she said. “If we’re not advocating for the right thing, it’s all for naught. We want to understand what you want us to take in front of Congress. We want to know what you want us to take in front of VA leadership.”