HIBBING, Minn. – A forum on veterans' issues turned contentious Wednesday for Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., as vets stepped forward to complain about local treatment at a Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic that has been the subject of criticism for long wait times and poor care.
Topics at the 90-minute meeting ran across the spectrum, from the inconvenience of long trips to Minneapolis to the money spent on illegal immigrants. But time and time again, the focus returned to complaints about local treatment.
"The clinic stinks to high heaven," said one woman. One veteran said he has stopped getting mental health services at the clinic because the doctor is a "fruitcake."
Navy veteran Ron Genise, who served in Vietnam, said he has stopped going to the clinic because of poor treatment. In one incident, he said, he was told not to take the bandage off a leg wound because the clinic didn't have another bandage to replace it.
"What you have here is a contract staff," he said. "They take the people who are the cheapest and put them in there. That is your problem: accountability."
Nolan, whose district includes Hibbing, has been aware of the complaints about the Hibbing VA clinic, run by a private company, and said he will continue to put pressure on both the VA and the private company to make improvements. More than two dozen complaints have been filed against the Hibbing clinic, which was taken over by Cincinnati-based Sterling Medical Associates last year.
The forum, one in a series as the VA wrestles with allegations of extended wait times nationwide, was attended by about two dozen vets.
The most heated exchange occurred between Mike Rosecrans, the Minneapolis VA's patient advocate and congressional liaison, and Hugh Quinn, the advocate for Itasca County veterans.
Rosecrans was speaking about concerns that local veterans were being sent to distant clinics for services not offered locally and suggested that anyone with complaints could speak to him through their county veteran service officers. "We really pride ourselves in Minnesota. We work very well as a team," he said. "Right now we're having some problems."
Quinn cut him off, complaining of three months of unanswered e-mails. "Don't sit there and glad hand the congressman, enough," he said. "Don't stand there and glad hand these veterans, take care of them when you walk out of here today."
Rosecrans suggested they talk after the meeting.
Before the meeting, Nolan, who has called the complaints "disturbing," said that the concerns were one reason he was meeting in Hibbing, but that he believed start-up troubles encountered by Sterling were being addressed.
"There's a few things that need some fixing, and they are trying very hard at it," Nolan said. "We're putting a lot of pressure on them to get it fixed now and not later."
Sterling and the Minneapolis VA, which oversees the clinic, say Sterling has added patients and decreased wait times.
At one point a veteran stood up to defend the care he was receiving at the Hibbing clinic, including extra blood work and new hearing aids, but was shouted down. "Are you being paid by Sterling?" one vet yelled from across the room.
Much of the focus of criticism at the VA has centered on large medical centers such as those in Phoenix. But the VA operates 820 clinics similar to the one in Hibbing, providing outpatient and primary care to vets. The numbers of outpatient visits are skyrocketing as an aging veteran population coincides with young combat veterans suffering from multiple medical and psychological issues.
The Hibbing clinic serves about 3,400 enrolled vets from four counties in northern Minnesota. California-based Health Net had operated the clinic under a contract with the VA since 2002, providing primary care, mental health care, women's health care and preventive health services to enrolled veterans.
Sterling was awarded the Hibbing contract in March 2013. It is reimbursed $62.02 per veteran per month by the VA, with additional reimbursements for such things as mental health services.
The Minneapolis VA has said it does not have concerns about how appointments are scheduled at the Hibbing and Ely clinics. Same-day appointments with a desired provider have increased under Sterling from 36 percent to 56 percent, the VA said. Since Sterling took over, it has added more than 200 new patients.
"The Minneapolis VA has a strong partnership and close working relationship with Sterling," the VA said in a statement. "The Minneapolis VA and the community clinics, operated by the Minnesota VA and its contractors, follow national performance guidelines."
The Hibbing clinic isn't the only focus of criticism from those in Congress. Several weeks ago, the Minneapolis VA hospital and a VA outpatient clinic in Rochester were flagged for additional review regarding wait times. Since then, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and represents southern Minnesota, said he has tried to get more information about any potential problems, including an indication of why the Minneapolis and Rochester facilities were flagged.
This week, Walz continued to express frustration over the lack of transparency and the VA's failure to provide basic information, describing the VA as "paranoid."
"It cuts to the heart of many of the problems that manifested themselves here," he said. "It is a bureaucracy that is still grinding along instead of entering into a sense of urgency. We have to know what the problem is before we can fix it."
Asked for an update on the investigations on the two Minnesota facilities, a spokesman for the Minneapolis VA said Wednesday there was nothing new to report.