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Protecting those who serve

Congress may fight like cats and dogs, but lawmakers lock step when it comes to veterans' issues.

That was the message 2nd Congressional District Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore, brought Friday to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.

"You are always going to have a push and pull among Republicans and Democrats," he said. "But there are two areas, actually three, in Washington where there is the least amount of partisanship: veterans, military and agriculture."

And the issue of veterans is clearly one that stands out when it comes to working together, he said.

"Congress remains very committed to our veterans, very committed to our active duty personnel," he added.

Walden made the observations after a quick tour of the facility with Don Burman, newly appointed director of the SORCC, which provides health care to more than 16,000 outpatients and more than 400 inpatients. It has a staff of roughly 550, as well as some 500 who volunteer at the facility.

Three building projects are under way to upgrade the facility, including a primary care unit. In addition, it has small outpatient clinics in Grants Pass, Klamath Falls and Lakeview.

VA facilities can expect an increase in veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Walden said the agency needs to prepare for that influx.

He is a co-sponsor of the Healthy Vets Act of 2013, which would require the VA to contract with local doctors and hospitals to provide medical services to veterans living hours away from a VA facility.

"This addresses an issue I've heard about all over our district," he said. "It will allow veterans in rural areas to see local providers instead of being forced to drive long distances for care.

"We are trying to bring some flexibility without adding to the cost," he added.

In a related issue, Walden said he is working with other members of Congress to improve veterans' access to mental health care.

"If there is an area of incredible need for our veterans, it is access to mental health services," he said, citing suicide and other issues. "We also want to improve the criminal justice system for vets with mental health conditions."

When it comes to technology, Walden, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Telecommunications Subcommittee, said there is a need to improve use of modern communication tools to improve access to health care for veterans.

"We need to figure out how to harness new technology to improve access to telemedicine, electronic health records, smartphone apps and other devices," he said.

During the Friday session, one veteran told Walden that he had been brushed aside by the VA and Walden's office when he brought up a complaint.

Elizabeth Dare, an audiologist in Klamath Falls, expressed concern to Walden that some of the veterans' issues were not being addressed at the VA facility.

"I have served veterans for 15 years, and I really think there is something wrong here at White City," she said. "Our veterans make phone calls and don't get the help they need."

Walden later met with both Dare and the veteran.

In an interview with the Mail Tribune, Dare said the issue is local access.

"What I'm finding is that local access needs to happen in Klamath Falls or in Lakeview for small things," she said.

That includes everything from hearing aids to door problems, she said.

"Things like that need to be addressed very timely," she said. "Unfortunately, we are waiting for authorization and it never comes. There are calls that are never answered. It's not right. Our veterans need to be treated better than that."

In response to a question about the types of concerns expressed to his office by veterans concerning VA health care, Walden said the biggest issue is the lengthy administrative process.

"There is a process issue that is just not acceptable," Walden said. "The length of time it takes to get into the system, to get spousal benefits — all the benefits — the time lag there. ... We have an enormous and unacceptable backlog."

In addition, the travel required to receive health benefits is a major concern, he continued.

"I hear that everywhere in our district," he said, noting the issue of driving long distances for health care is a constant complaint.

"We have to keep on our priority: quick care for our veterans," he stressed.

But Walden was also quick to compliment the SORCC staff, noting their workload.

"This facility does incredible work for our men and women who have worn our nation's uniforms," he said. "Their ability to make the buildings here earthquake safe while expanding and improving services is really critical.

"But, look, they take care of about 16,000 veterans in this area," he said. "Making sure veterans have access to the health care this facility uniquely provides is really important."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, speaks Friday at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairsí Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore