GRANGEVILLE – More than 100 veterans and their spouses crowded the Idaho County Veterans Outreach and Community Center Friday evening, March 1.

Representatives from the Walla Walla VA called a town hall meeting to discuss, among other things, the closing of the Grangeville VA Clinic, which was run in cooperation with a contract through Syringa Hospital since September 2010.

New director of the Walla Walla VA (Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center), Christopher R. Bjornberg, announced the Grangeville VA Clinic will close when its contract expires the end of March. Though it was not discussed at this meeting specifically, the issue was previously discussed at Syringa Hospital board meetings. Following the resignation of long-term Grangeville VA care provider Beth Montsebroten, FNP, Syringa was unable to recruit a new provider for that clinic. The reason given was that the VA has stringent guidelines and they would only issue six-month contracts, making it hard for a provider to commit.

Bjornberg assured the room that each veteran will continue to receive the standard of care they deserve. He explained the new veterans Mission Act begins in June, and, in the interim, the Walla Walla VA will make the transition “as seamless as possible.”

“As you know, things in the VA move really fast,” he said – sarcastically – to a room full of chuckles. “This changeover is no exception.”

Christopher R. Bjornberg

New director of the Walla Walla VA (Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center), Christopher R. Bjornberg, addresses the crowd at the Veterans Town Hall Meeting March 1.

He said the biggest change for local veterans will be location of their services.

“You won’t be going to the Grangeville VA Clinic – you will be making the choice where you want to go,” he said.

Syringa CEO Abner King was on hand – having met with Bjornberg and his leadership team prior to the town hall meeting – to give assurance to veterans, as well.

Abner King

Syringa CEO Abner King assures veterans in the town hall meeting March 1 that Syringa is prepared to care for them.

“Syringa is committed to care for all veterans in our community. We’re prepared to transition that care,” to the primary clinic or another place of choice.

Chief of Development at the Walla Walla VA, Steve Fleury, said the government is “good about putting new names on things.”

“But let’s forget about the terminology for now … you won’t notice too many changes,” he said. Veterans will have to make their appointments through the Walla Walla VA, no matter where they choose to go for care.

Steve Fleury

Chief of Development at the Walla Walla VA, Steve Fleury, addresses the crowd at the Veterans Town Hall Meeting March 1.

Several veterans had questions about care, prescriptions and payments.

“Every bit of care through the VA has to be pre-approved,” Fleury said. When several questions arose about emergent care, he explained benefits are based on individual eligibility, but, “the only way to guarantee payments [on emergency care/transfer] is to be sent somewhere from a VA facility.”

One veteran from the Kamiah area said there are “tremendous problems with the VA.” He explained he was refused mental health treatment at the Lewiston VA for two months without any answers as to “why?”

“I’m not angry with you – but I am furious,” he told the Walla Walla representatives. “I want you to make this a priority. I’m about to pull the trigger on this and it won’t be pretty for the VA.”

Many veterans expressed their frustrations about the VA not sharing medical records with other facilities or providers, denial of payments, problems with VA payments when Medicare is also involved and lack of communication from the VA.

John Warford of Grangeville asked if Syringa would honor its veterans as it “would not previously honor the Vets Choice [health insurance program],” until he attended a board meeting and “stirred things up.”

Syringa Clinic Director Michelle Schaeffer said in the past they had chosen not to accept Vets Choice at the time when they felt those services were being duplicated elsewhere [at the Grangeville VA Clinic] and the clinics were experiencing “some issues associated with growth.”

“Those problems have since been resolved,” she said.

Michelle Schaeffer

Syringa Clinics Director, Michelle Schaeffer, answers questions about transitional care for veterans at the town hall meeting March 1.

Clayton Plank of Grangeville spoke out saying he heard Syringa doctors were not accepting new patients.

“Are you prepared to take in all the veterans [who were going to the Grangeville VA Clinic]?” he asked. That current number, according to Syringa, is 342.

King stated only one provider “has a full panel of patients.”

“The other seven are taking new patients, and we will add another provider,” coming this summer, he added.

Schaeffer added that, realistically, not all veterans will choose Syringa.

“We will still help those veterans make the transition, wherever they choose to go,” she said.

The audience heard story after story from veterans who recounted problems or concerns with the VA; however, most all who spoke said their Grangeville VA Clinic care has been “the best.”

“This is by far the best care I’ve ever received in my 20 years under VA care,” said Jinny Cash, commander for the American Legion, Department of Idaho/District 2, and marketing director for the veterans center. The bottom line, she said, is “we don’t want to lose our clinic. Is St. Mary’s an option for stepping in?”

She was advised this is not an option at the current time.

Another veteran asked if the rumors he heard are true about the Boise VA absorbing Lewiston and Walla Walla.

“I have not heard that, but there are some hard-to-fill positions that have been combined,” said Marvin R. Crawford, associate director for operations at Walla Walla. He also expressed concern for the audience members who had told their stories.

“I feel your pain – Steve and I are veterans: we’re right there with you,” he emphasized.

Bjornberg acknowledged the situation is difficult as “everyone is so passionate.”

“But we cannot hold grudges for what has happened in the past,” he stated. “I’m telling you, we are committed and striving to go forward.”

Names and numbers of those experiencing current problems with the system and their care were taken with a promise of help as quickly as possible.

Veterans who need to make appointments can call the Walla Wall VA Care in the Community line at 509-527-3471. For payment questions, call the Network Payment Center at 877-881-7618. For after hours care call the Walla Walla VA Medical Center at 1-888-687-8863. See https://www.wallawalla.va.gov/ for more choices.

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