TEMPLE — The room was full at the town hall and listening session for veterans and their families Thursday at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center.
Listening is the operative word, Sallie Houser-Hanfelder, director of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, told the crowd.
“We’re not here to feed you a lot of information, but to hear your concerns,” she said.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald urged systemwide sessions to generate feedback after recent controversy over long wait times for health care at VA clinics.
Speakers, who only used their first names at the microphone, expressed a variety of concerns.
Lorenzo talked about his frustration in getting in to talk to the director.
“I thought you had an open door policy for veterans to come in and talk to you,” Lorenzo said to Houser-Handfelder.
She explained she doesn’t have a true open door policy because she’s responsible for nine sites of care across Central Texas and has offices in three of those locations — Temple, Waco and Austin. There are 98,000 veterans enrolled for services at those sites.
VA clerks’ and patient advocates’ attitudes and willingness to help took a lot of heat in the comments.
The clerks seem defensive and detached, Lorenzo said.
“We have some great staff, but we have some customer service issues,” Houser-Hanfelder said.
The phone system is frustrating and doesn’t work correctly. Andrew Garcia, assistant director of operations, and other VA staff have been appointed to fix the phones, she said.
Several veterans were frustrated with the claims process and what they considered a disrespectful staff.
Barbara, an Army veteran, said she was pleased with her care at the Temple VA hospital after surgeries.
Her concern was with her doctor’s appointments being limited to 30 minutes. She said doctors seem more interested in talking about what they consider important and not allowing time for the patient to share concerns.
The VA is in the process of sensitizing its caregivers so they pay more attention to the concerns of the patient, said Dr. Olwale Fashina, chief of staff.
The VA has to have some form of schedule and tries to hit a happy medium at 30 minutes per appointment.
One veteran said he was frustrated by how long it took to get a new primary-care doctor.
Another, who has seen multiple specialists, was concerned about the lack of communication between those providers.
“We’re looking at how we complete the circle,” Houser-Hanfelder said.
Not all of Thursday’s comments from veterans were negative.
“You guys deserve an attaboy, overall,” Winfield said.
Other officials participating in Thursday’s forum included Bryan Sisk, associate director for patient and nursing services, and John Limpose, director of the Waco VA Regional Office. The information gleaned from the session will be sent up the system early next week.