Veterans scramble after VA clinics close
By DINESH RAMDE
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Two Veterans Affairs clinics in northwestern Wisconsin closed abruptly this week, leaving nearly 1,000 local veterans wondering where they will get health care.
"Guys are worried. We've got some guys on oxygen, some guys who aren't doing so well, don't know what's going to happen," said Jim Sanders, the post commander for the American Legion Post 87 in Rice Lake. "But (if) they need to get to a clinic and don't know how, one way or another we'll get 'em there."
Some 915 veterans had enrolled at two VA clinics opened in Rice Lake and Hayward earlier this year to handle simple outpatient procedures such as regular checkups, physicals, blood draws and x-rays.
But the Kentucky corporation that runs the clinics closed them Monday, saying the VA hadn't fulfilled its promises to help run them profitably. The VA, in turn, accused the company of leaving veterans in the lurch.
Veterans with appointments scheduled this week are being sent to other clinics within 60 miles, including those in Superior, Chippewa Falls and Minneapolis, said Ralph Heussner, a spokesman for the Minneapolis VA Medical Center that oversaw the two Wisconsin clinics.
The VA is also looking into other short-term solutions such as care by local private health care providers and using a mobile clinic such as a medical van. It hopes to re-establish VA-operated clinics in the area by early January, Heussner said.
The VA hired the company, Corporate Health & Wellness, Inc., in February to run the two clinics. The Paris, Ky.,-based company agreed to accept a fixed sum per month instead of having the VA reimburse it dollar for dollar, president and chief executive Mary Cheek said.
It quickly felt pressure from the government to spend more on supplies and equipment than it had budgeted and could pay.
"We were losing $26,000 a month," Cheek said.
When she told the government its demands were wiping out her profits, Cheek said, she was told to file for an adjustment to the contract. But nothing ever came of the filings. Closing the clinics, she insisted, was a temporary measure that the company was forced into.
Regardless, the move could constitute a breach of contract the VA will discuss with its attorneys, Heussner said.
In the meantime, the facility in Minneapolis will do whatever is necessary to accommodate additional patients, including extending hours or supplementing staff with physicians from the closed facilities, he said.
Wisconsin's two Democratic senators and U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wausau, issued a strongly worded joint statement Tuesday condemning the closings.
"It's behavior like this that shows why contracting out government services is a real risk to the taxpayer and the American public," Obey said.
Implications that her company doesn't take its responsibility to veterans seriously is unfair, said Cheek, noting that her brother is a Vietnam veteran and her father a decorated war hero from World War II.
"We do care about the veterans, we care very much about America's veterans," she said.
Cheek said her corporation has other similar contracts with the VA but she declined to say where and how many. The others have been free of the financial issues plaguing the two Wisconsin sites, she said.
The only point of contention has been finances, not quality of service, Heussner and Cheek agreed. Veterans treated at the clinics also said they appreciated the quality of care they received and were eager to see the matter resolved.
Sanders, 70, said he and his fellow veterans were trying to stay focused on finding health care -- not passing judgment on the corporation or the government.
"Guys are ticked off, but they're keeping a lid on it, trying not to go off the deep end," he said. "We're kind of taking a wait-and-see approach 'till this thing opens up."