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Local veterans raise concerns about VA clinic

by LAUREN REICHENBACH
Staff Writer | May 2, 2023 1:00 AM

Over a dozen Bonner County veterans congregated at the Sandpoint VFW Post 2453 hall Friday evening to voice numerous concerns with the recently opened Veterans Association clinic in Ponderay.

While two STGI International employees — who were hired to manage the clinic — were in attendance Friday, no representatives from the VA were present for the meeting. Instead, the VA submitted a brief letter, stating that while no representatives were present at the April meeting, the organization was committing to organizing a May meeting where local veterans could air their frustrations with the clinic.

Despite the VA’s lack of attendance, veterans stuck around to talk with the two STGI attendees. STGI’s vice president of clinical operations Dave Gibson told the veterans that while the company could not provide answers to a lot of questions as they were more directly related to the VA, he would work hard to ensure that everyone’s issues were eventually resolved.

“We are contractors,” Gibson said. “We don't speak for the VA. But first, I want to hear what you all have to say so we know where to go from here.”

Many veterans said they felt ignored by the clinic, waiting upward of six weeks to receive test results, if they received a call at all. One veteran said he called the automated phone system Monday night to get his test results back. The message said he would receive a call back within 72 hours.

“That was Monday,” he said. “It’s Friday night and I haven’t heard a thing. I still don’t know if I have bronchitis or pneumonia.”

Other veterans chimed in complaining about the automated system and how difficult it is to speak with a person at the clinic, making every process more difficult.

“Since [STGI] have been here, we have not been able to talk to a person,” one veteran said. “We have to talk to a machine. And that’s the biggest B.S.”

One veteran said his provider has changed three times in the past year that the clinic has been open, making it extremely hard for him to make appointments or get medication refills.

“There's not even a general number I can call to say, ‘Hey, I’d like to get this refilled,’” he said. “When I do get a hold of someone, I will tell them the name of my doctor and they’ll say they left months ago.”

Many complained that because of the clinic’s short staffing, they would be placed on hold for incredibly long periods of time when trying to make an appointment, often causing them to hang up because they had other things to do.

However, Gibson told the veterans that the clinic became fully staffed two weeks ago. While that had not been the case for a long time, he said the newly-acquired staff should solve some of the call wait time issues veterans have been experiencing.

Multiple veterans also complained about the medical advice being offered at the clinic. In one instance, a man was told he had warts and that they were nothing serious. A week later, his hand swelled up to double its size and when he went to see a dermatologist, he was told he had one of the rarest forms of skin cancer.

“You should be able to tell the difference between warts and skin cancer,” he said.

Another veteran said he has had chronic back pain since fighting in the Vietnam War and was told by a clinic doctor to “drink cherry juice and eat chia seeds to help with the pain.”

Although many patients had issues with their health care providers at the clinic, some veterans said they haven’t had any problems as long as they’re able to make an appointment.

“Once I get into the clinic, I've never had a problem,” one veteran said. “It’s getting through to the clinic that’s a problem.”

While the Bonner County VA clinic has been a major point of contention among Bonner County veterans, many said they didn’t want to see it shut down because they like the close proximity it offered compared to having to drive to Spokane for services.

“We don't have any intention of shutting this place down,” said STGI’s community outreach program manager Candice Burnside. “We intend to improve it, grow it and make it better.”

There have been many bumps in the road since the VA clinic opened in 2022, but local veterans are hopeful that these meetings will inspire productive change and will transform the facility into a well-loved place.

“If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten,” one veteran offered.

The VA is still working with STGI and local veterans to determine a date for the May meeting.