Veterans Affairs officials gave a reassuring report to veterans and their spouses at a town hall meeting Wednesday night at the United Veterans Club.
A host of representatives from the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System spoke at the gathering, which attracted more than 80 people.
One of the better speakers was Glen Cook, who talked about the Veterans Transportation Service. Cook, who lives in Underwood, Iowa, said his staff isn’t perfect. They will make mistakes. But he’s going to do his darnedest to make sure those mistakes are corrected, he said.
The final speaker of the two-hour gathering was Don Burman, who is director of the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System. Burman borrowed a portion of Cook’s message.
But he also conveyed some hopeful messages of his own. If he finds an employee who is not serious about caring for veterans, he will ask that employee to resign, Burman said. The VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System totals 75,000 square miles, nine locations and 2,700 employees.
The VA is weeding out people who don’t care about putting veterans first, he said. Burman’s method is to tell patients the truth. “Because a veteran can handle the truth,” he said.
The newest VA initiative is called the Mission Act. The previous program, called Choice, was a “disaster,” Burman said.
Burman and the other speakers all seemed anxious to help. Burman actually gave out the phone numbers of his two must trusted assistants, and encouraged attendees to call them.
Virtually every speaker stressed the value of feedback, and audience members delivered. One man said VA employees don’t relate to patients. Burman said the easiest way to communicate with a veteran is to sit down next to him and talk to him.
Bob Lathen of Grand Island told Burman he was on the phone for 29 minutes scheduling an appointment with his primary caregiver, who lives in Grand Island. Burman shared a little background about the VA’s consolidated phone system. Even though a call center is in Omaha, it’s operated by people in Eagan, Minn., he said. If you call after 4:30 p.m., your call is transferred to Dayton, Ohio. Burman told audience members to contact members of Congress, asking that the VA consolidated phone system be changed.
Burman, whose background is in private health care, said he spends taxpayer money prudently. “I know how to squeeze a nickel out of a penny,” he said.
He also shared some inside information. Beginning Oct. 1, patients and visitors to the Omaha VA campus will not be allowed to smoke. So far, employees have avoided that edict, because they have a powerful union.
Burman expressed great confidence in the ambulatory care clinic being built on the grounds of the Omaha VA Hospital, because it’s being built under the leadership of Walter Scott Jr., who will brook no waste or delays, Burman said.
Dr. David Williams, who is chief of staff, said the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System works well with Omaha hospitals. He told one man that if the VA can’t repair his detached retina, “we’ll get you to a doctor who can.”
Other speakers included social worker Janelle Brock, who talked about suicide prevention. She teaches family members about the signs and symptoms displayed by veterans considering suicide.
Brock also hands out gun locks. She said more than once that “we are not here to take your guns away.” But veterans know how to use their guns, and family members don’t.
Patrick Dawson, who is the assistant director of the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, brought the audience good news. The Fisher House Foundation is building a 16-suite brick building near 42nd and Woolworth in Omaha. If veterans need to stay overnight for surgery or other procedures, their families may stay in the Fisher House free of charge. The suites will be fully furnished, and food will be provided.
The building will cover 15,000 square feet. It will be open to veterans’ families from throughout Nebraska and western Iowa. There are only 82 Fisher Houses in the U.S., and two in Europe.
Work will begin on the Omaha Fisher House on Monday, and it will be completed in 15 months.
Audience members also heard about a new emphasis on whole health. Veterans seeking pain relief are showing an interest in yoga and tai chi, which might also help them survive lengthy phone calls.