The tension was palpable on Wednesday as Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, entered the Veterans Affairs (VA) Puget Sound’s Mobile Medical Unit (MMU) in Chehalis.
The unit is an RV fashioned into a miniature doctor’s office parked outside the Veterans Memorial Museum. It arrived months after Herrera Beutler wrote a strongly-worded letter to the VA on behalf of the veterans in Lewis County, claiming the organization broke its promise when it closed a clinic in Chehalis in October 2021 without providing additional care in the area.
According to a news release from the VA, it was the cost of the clinic’s contract that forced the closure.
“As of May 2022, of the approximately 3,400 veterans who were enrolled to its contracted clinic in Chehalis, more than 3,000 chose to transfer enrollment to one of VA Puget Sound’s other care sites — most to its VA-operated Olympia clinic which is within the 30-minute drive time for about 2,000 of them,” stated the release. “That leaves about 375 of the 3,400 original Chehalis Clinic enrollees turning to the community network for their care options or choosing to enroll at one of the VA Puget Sound care sites.”
The MMU can provide services to 300 veterans. It is not currently set up to take walk-in appointments, though Herrera Beutler said she has seen success in the Raymond MMU with walk-ins. As of Wednesday, only five veterans had been signed up for the new Chehalis MMU’s services.
According to Deborah Archer, who will be running the MMU, the VA began engaging in outreach about the unit “a couple months ago.”
The Chronicle first received a news release about the MMU being established on Monday, June 27. Museum Director Chip Duncan said he was asked not to share the news about the clinic, and was surprised when The Chronicle broke the news after getting a press release from the office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray. He said he had not been in communication with her office.
“Obviously, this is very concerning,” Herrera Beutler said on Wednesday. “I have questions. And even just the questions that I’ve asked have taken a long time to get answered, which I don’t like. If that’s happening to me, what’s happening to the average veteran who needs an answer and doesn’t have that title?”
Within the last month, when talking to Lewis County commissioners about funding a peer resource center at the museum, Duncan called the MMU a “tourniquet” for the lack of services for local veterans.
Asked if she agreed with that sentiment, the congresswoman said, “It depends on the situation. I’ve seen them work. Will it work here? I don’t know, the jury’s out, which is why I’m here literally kicking the tires.”
Speaking to Archer inside the MMU, Herrera Beutler said she knows the staff with the VA “live and breathe” their love for veterans. The congresswoman added that the issue ultimately comes down to how well the local veteran population feels supported.
“I’m a big believer in the MMUs, but it doesn’t matter if I think it’s a good idea,” she told Archer.
The unit will continue parking at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis at 100 SW Veterans Way each Wednesday, holding appointments from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. According to the news release, enrollment criteria includes veterans with high medical complexities, challenges with transportation and those who reside outside the 30-minute driving distance to the Olympia Clinic.
To make getting to appointments easier, VA Puget Sound provides transportation services to VA appointments for eligible veterans living in the service area, which includes Olympia. Veterans may access the VA Transportation program through their VA provider or by calling VA Puget Sound’s Travel office at 206-764-2120.
For more information, visit www.va.gov/puget-sound-health-care or call 800-329-8387. Veterans who have not explored health care eligibility are encouraged to visit www.va.gov/health-care/eligibility/ or call 877-222-8387 to learn more.