Walden gets an earful from student veterans

October 19, 2016 GMT

Some 15 armed services veterans met with Congressman Greg Walden on the Oregon Institute of Technology campus Tuesday and nearly every one of them had a frustrating story to tell when it comes to working with the Veterans Association and health care.

Walden, R-Ore., is touring his district collecting stories in hopes of improving the VA. Of some of the issues he’s heard, he remarked, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

“I struggle with the fact that I can order my hotel rooms over the next few days online or get a rental car,” Walden noted, “but you can’t set a medical appointment with the VA online at all. There’s got to be a better way to do this.”

Praise for Oregon Tech

Meanwhile, OIT receives high praise from the group in accommodating student veterans. The college has more than 100 vets on the Klamath Falls campus alone, attending at various levels of financial aid and federal funding. And there is a veterans’ program center where students can work out their problems among their peers.

Yet, when it comes to medical exams or treatment, the VA center in White City has not been as accommodating.

“Sometimes you’d have to set up an appointment three to six months in advance, which is not a big issue,” said Marine veteran Matt Barber. “However, driving one hour over the pass to Medford in bad weather is an issue, especially if you’ve had an eye exam and your eyes are dilated.”

“And, you’d sometimes get stuck at the VA waiting all day for an exam,” one student chimed in.

Insufficient staffing

And, while there is a satellite clinic in Klamath Falls, it is not always adequately staffed. If a student needs a specialist to travel to Klamath Falls, they often cancel on the student after making an appointment, the vets said.

A Catch-22 the vets noted was having medical delays get in the way of completing their studies, thus missing out on school and getting incompletes on report cards — forcing them to spend extra to complete their studies.

“I am more than grateful with the programs that the VA offers, but the commitment of time will throw off a student’s work schedule,” said student Josh Nielsen.

“They (the VA) schedule you (for a medical exam) without regard to your school schedule here and if you have one hiccup, it could be the landslide that takes the entire semester out,” Nielsen said. “You are using your benefit you’re getting for your education, but you’re not getting the uphill traction to maintain it.”

Nielsen added that he forgoes any medical benefits for issues he has, because the timing “is so haphazard.”

Financial crisis

Others noted that school benefits are not paid when school is out of session, such as over the holidays. It puts the students in a bind to pay rent or other necessities.

“I have to go to the food bank once a month,” said Army vet Michael Massengill, who is studying mechanical engineering.

Another student, Lisa Bailey, said she almost ended up homeless due to a lag in benefit payouts.

Walden, who was recently in White City at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics, said the center is “two-thirds” down on physicians.

“You’ve got to increase salaries by about 15 percent and have some loan forgiveness (for doctors leaving medical school in debt).

The VA caps loan forgiveness payouts at $60,000. It’s not very attractive to a new physician to work for the VA, he said.

Former OIT student, veteran and now adjunct professor A.J. Davila, who set up the meeting with Walden and the vets, asked for an overarching legislation to protect student vets, fix the loopholes in funding legislation and make it more uniform for vets to navigate health care and school benefits.