Shortly after taking over, Sterling announced plans to move a satellite clinic from Cook to Ely, about 45 miles to the east in St. Louis County.
Then the complaints began from vets like Lee. He went to St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth for heart scans in October. The doctor said they had detected blockage in his heart and recommended an angiogram and possible stents. Lee said he needed permission from the VA, and St. Mary’s sent the results to the Hibbing clinic, which forwarded them to the Minneapolis VA. After two weeks the St. Mary’s cardiologist called Lee.
“They said, ‘You need to get in here right away. This is serious,’ ” Lee said. Lee said his doctor in Duluth called the Minneapolis VA, who told him they had looked at the results and didn’t see anything wrong.
In March, Lee had another heart attack and was taken again from Grand Rapids to Duluth, where a pacemaker was put in. During a follow-up visit in Minneapolis for prostate cancer, Lee confided his concerns about his heart to a patient advocate. A few weeks later, Lee got a letter telling him to come down to Minneapolis. They wanted to do an angiogram.
After the angiogram, Lee said he was told he needed open heart surgery immediately. He was on the operating room table the next day. It had taken five months.
“Five months is a little bit too long to wait when you are having an emergency heart problem,” Lee said.
Lee said there have been clear changes since Sterling took over the Hibbing clinic.
Kraig Olson, a 45-year-old veteran of the Minnesota National Guard, has been on VA-prescribed pain medications for years. He suffered a back injury when a large box fell on him during summer training exercises.
Olson is homeless, living in a lean-to outside of Grand Rapids with a Chihuahua mix named Poncho. He’s been unable to wean himself off the prescribed painkillers at a time when the VA has tightened its rules for distributing its narcotics.
Seeking relief wherever he could find it, Olson tested positive for marijuana and was booted off VA medications. He admits to buying his pain meds on the streets. Olson said he once waited on hold for four hours to speak to someone at the clinic before the office closed for the day and his call went to voice mail.
“Before it was a bureaucratic mess and it was a nightmare, but if you stood there and walked it through you could make some things happen,” Olson said. “Since the new people started, they’re nonexistent. You can’t get any response.”
Eighth District congressman Nolan has received complaints from veterans about how the clinic is operating, ranging from high staff turnover, to a spike in the number of patients, to lack of access to medications such as insulin, to systemic problems within the VA bureaucracy that inhibit open communication.
“Make no mistake — we are going to get to the bottom of this situation and fix what needs to be fixed,” Nolan said in a statement.
An e-mail to Sterling employees last October suggests managers have concerns about appointments that extend past the 14-day goal established by the VA.
The e-mail, from a Sterling clinic coordinator in Minnesota, reminds employees to pay attention to “desired date vs. actual apt. date” and raises concerns about 63 errors on what are known as clinic access reports. The e-mail suggests correcting the error by “fixing the desired date (as was put for the date the apt was made and was not the actual desired date). This should be no more than 14 days apart.”
The e-mail continues: “We cannot ‘lie’ with this as I am sure there are some acts that have to wait 14 days over the desired d/t availability, but hopefully we can start improving this as well.”