Editor’s note: “Bringing It Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
With reports that Department of Veterans Affairs administrators in Phoenix have been manipulating medical waiting lists, the nation awaits a determination on the severity and pervasiveness of the abuse.
A report by Deputy Inspector General Richard J. Griffin found that 1,700 veterans were mishandled in Phoenix. Average wait times for primary-care appointments were reported as 24 days by the VA but in fact, veterans were left waiting an average of 115 days.
On Thursday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson confirmed one of the worst fears surrounding the VA reports: 18 veterans whose names were kept off an appointment list died while seeking medical attention. That’s in addition to 17 deaths reported last month by the VA’s inspector general. With suspicion that the manipulation is not limited to Phoenix, Griffin’s office is reviewing practices at 42 VA medical facilities across the nation.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dick Merritt — a Basalt resident who has helped organize Aspen’s Memorial Day ceremony for the past 27 years — can’t help but tune in to the reports. Just the other day on National Public Radio, he heard the story of Navy veteran Ken Senft, who contacted the VA clinic in Phoenix after noticing a lesion on his head. The clinic’s doctor told him it could take two years to be seen. Rather than wait, Senft paid out-of-pocket for a private physician, who found the lesion to be cancerous.
Though Merritt has no complaints about the treatment he has received in the Roaring Fork Valley, he wants local veterans to know that if they are in need, there are resources a phone call away.
“We’re not attacking the VA,” Merritt said. “(Fellow veteran) Fred (Venrick) and I are both in Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs, and they’re treating us very well. We don’t have any real issues, but nationally, there are issues.”
The VA hospital in Grand Junction has identified about 7,000 veterans in the Roaring Fork Valley, but Merritt estimates that the number is closer to 14,000.
“I would think on the upper side (of those figures) because we see people coming out of the woodwork at these ceremonies around the community,” Merritt said.
Navy veteran Dan Glidden, who, like Venrick and Merritt, served in Vietnam, is worried that local vets are writing the VA off, based on national reports. He’s worried their minds are set on, “Screw it. It’s not worth the brain damage to get involved.”
“So we’ll make the effort to reach out to those folks,” he said.
Merritt said any veteran in need — or simply looking for recreational activities with other veterans — can contact Annie Davies, of Rocky Mountain Human Services, at 303-636-5918, 720-256-6979 or adavies@rmhuman services.org. They also can reach out to Merritt at 970-927-5178, Venrick at 970-925-5145 or Glidden at 970-927-4183.
“Realistically, we want to find out what’s in the valley,” said Venrick, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps. “We want to take care of our own.”
These three men and a group of local veterans, in partnership with the Aspen Elks Lodge, offer Leave No Veteran Behind, a link to valley programs aimed at bettering the lives of area service members. The following is a list of local resources:
Rocky Mountain Human Services (www.rmhumanservices.org) — Offers several programs to those who have served in the military. Through funding from Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, businesses, foundations and individuals, Rocky Mountain Human Services assists active-duty military personnel and veterans with services to enhance physical and mental well-being.
Huts for Vets (www.hutsfor vets.org) — An organization that puts on free wilderness trips for returning service members. The group’s purpose is to help veterans adjust to and enjoy civilian life by equipping them with tools for enhancing mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health.
Challenge Aspen (www.challenge aspen.org/military) — Adaptive and therapeutic recreation, wellness and cultural experiences for injured/wounded warriors with cognitive and/or physical disabilities. The Women’s Mountain Retreat, a winter wilderness trip reserved for female veterans, is coordinated by the organization.
National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic (www.va.gov/opa/speceven/wsc/index.asp) — Adaptive winter-sports instruction for U.S. military veterans and active-duty servicemen and servicewomen with disabilities.
Hospice of the Valley (www.hchotv.org) — Three core areas of service to patients and their families who reside in any of the local communities in the Roaring Fork, Colorado, Crystal and Eagle river valleys: home health, hospice and private-pay services. This organization honors veterans.