Central Oregon veterans travel for health care

Video: Shuttle service takes vets to Portland hospital

By Mac McLean / The Bulletin / @agingbeat

Published Apr 4, 2014 at 12:11AM

It was still dark outside when Alan Sandner pulled an 11-passenger van into the parking lot of the Redmond Safeway at 6:30 a.m. last week to make sure there weren’t any veterans hoping to catch a last-minute ride to the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“There’s not supposed to be anyone here according to the manifest, but we always check,” Sandner said as he drove through the grocery store’s parking lot and scanned the windows of its coffee shop to make sure he didn’t see any familiar faces.

Every weekday morning, Sandner or another volunteer with the Veterans Transportation Network — a joint venture managed by Disabled American Veterans and the federal Veterans Health Administration — take people from Central Oregon to Portland so they can get medical treatments they can’t get at the Bend Veterans Affairs clinic.

Sandner picked up a former avionics technician from Bend who needed to go to the VA hospital for a CT scan when he started his trip across the pass. His next two stops were in Terrebonne, which, like Redmond, didn’t have any scheduled passengers, and Madras, where he picked up Alvin Ferguson, a camera technician who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1954 to 1961.

“The guys on TV said it was going to be slushy on the pass this morning,” said Ferguson, 77, who needed to get a preoperative assessment at the Portland hospital before he undergoes hip replacement surgery there next week. “(This shuttle) is a great service. It sure saves me a lot of headaches.”

The system

Generally speaking, any person who performed active military, naval or air service or was in a reserve unit with the U.S. military that was called up for active duty and received something other than a dishonorable discharge can receive low-cost and in some cases free health care through the Veterans Health Administration’s network of 971 hospitals and outpatient clinics.

“Almost anybody is eligible (for this care) as long as they aren’t making a ton of money,” said John Shea, operations manager for the VHA’s Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Bend. He added that all veterans should “just come down here and apply” for these benefits if they think they may be eligible because the rules regarding this process vary widely depending on a person’s time of service and other circumstances.

Located on Courtney Avenue just north of St. Charles Bend, Shea’s clinic serves about 6,500 veterans who live in an area that stretches from La Pine to the Columbia River Gorge.

Shea said most of these veterans served during the Vietnam War and about half of them are being treated for an injury or illness they suffered while in the military.

The Bend clinic is one of eight outpatient clinics managed by the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which is located in southwest Portland next to the Oregon Health & Science University main campus. This medical center is one of eight hospitals and medical centers the VHA manages in the Pacific Northwest, each of which has its own network of community-based outpatient clinics.

But because of their size, these outpatient clinics cannot provide all of the medical services the veterans they serve may need. For instance, while the Bend clinic has a vision center where veterans can get their eyes checked, it does not have an operating room where they can get cataract surgery or other eye surgeries.

“That’s something we just don’t have here,” said Shea, who hopes to expand the clinic even further because the region is home to 23,000 veterans and more are moving to Central Oregon every day. “We’re working on that, and we might get it someday, but not any time soon.”

Shea said the clinic also lacks the ability to provide its patients with advanced cardiovascular services such as cardiac stress tests, neurological treatments, surgical services and other advanced health care.

Though most of these services are offered at clinics and hospitals in Central Oregon, veterans who get their health care through the Veterans Health Administration must either get this care at one of the administration’s hospitals or pay for the procedures — some of which can cost tens of thousands of dollars — out of their own pockets or with their own health insurance, which can trigger substantial copays or deductibles.

“If we can’t do a patient’s treatment at an outpatient clinic then we try to bring them here,” said Dan Herrigstad, public information officer for the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Herrigstad said there are a few cases when veterans can get their medical care outside of the VHA system — for instance, if they need emergency care, which the system does not offer at any of its hospitals, or if they live an “extreme distance” from a VHA-affiliated clinic or hospital — but that those cases are the exception and not the rule.

Bob Heisey, an 89-year-old World War II veteran with multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, deals with this bureaucracy just about every month. While the Bend clinic is capable of providing some of his services — it has a telecommunications network Heisey can use to meet with his oncologist in Portland and a lab he can use for his blood work — it does not have the ability to mix and administer the chemotherapy infusions Heisey needs to keep his cancer from spreading and help his bones regain their strength.

The clinic’s inability to provide these infusions leaves Heisey with two options: He can either get the treatments from a private infusion center like the one at St. Charles, something that would cost a lot even with the private medical insurance Heisey and his wife have, or he can travel to Portland and get them at the VA medical center’s infusion center for free.

“They’re wonderful here,” said Heisey, who doesn’t mind making the trip to Portland because he can visit with his daughter after each five-hour chemotherapy treatment. “(The doctors) work with you so much. … I love each and every one of them.”

Heisey also doesn’t mind dealing with the VHA rules because, like Ferguson, he can catch the Veterans Health Network’s shuttle from Bend to Portland every weekday morning and get a ride back that afternoon or the next day depending on how long his appointments last.

The shuttles

Located on the Portland VA medical center’s first floor, Wanda Janus’ office is constantly abuzz as a team of VHA employees and volunteers work to find veterans a way they can get to and from the hospital for their medical needs.

“We don’t care what their appointments are for; we just care that they have an appointment,” said Janus, who supervises the medical center’s Veterans Transportation Service, which serves patients who live within a 20-mile radius of the hospital and works closely with the medical center’s Veterans Transportation Network that serves vets who live outside the Portland metro area.

Relying on an army of volunteers, Janus said the network helps anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 veterans each month to get to the medical center from cities as far away as Astoria, Florence, The Dalles and Bend.

She said Disabled American Veterans provides vans that can hold 11 or sometimes 15 passengers; the Veterans Health Administration covers maintenance and fuel costs. Local DAV chapters are also responsible for recruiting the volunteer drivers, Janus said.

“Outside of Portland, we have more volunteer drivers than any other city,” said Don Lang, who has been running the Central Oregon DAV chapter’s veterans transportation network and its team of about 60 drivers for the past four years. “Some of our drivers go to Portland once a month; some go two or three times. It just depends on what they have going on.”

Lang said a lot of the DAV’s drivers — including Sandner, who drove the Portland shuttle on Tuesday — also drive buses for a local shuttle service operated by the DAV chapter and Central Oregon Veterans Outreach that takes veterans from La Pine, Madras, Prineville and their surrounding areas to the outpatient clinic in Bend.

Lang, who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, said he enjoys running the service because it gives him something to do now that he’s retired. Lang said he and the service’s co-managers, Dennis Merrill and Harry Day, also do the work associated with running the program because they are veterans and they feel a strong pull to band together and help each other out.

Sandner, who served in the Air Force from 1957 to 1962, gave a similar answer when asked why he was willing to get up before 6 a.m. and take a group of veterans on a four-hour drive in the snow.

“It’s a way to give back,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, mmclean@bendbulletin.com

Ride with the veterans in a video at bendbulletin.com/vetsbus