Puget Sound VA Holds Chehalis Town Hall for Lewis County Veterans

Locals Plead for Permanent VA Clinic in Lewis County


In a town hall meeting held Wednesday night at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis, members of the Puget Sound Veterans Affairs (VA) office gathered with a handful of locals from throughout Lewis County to explain how veterans in the county can get access to VA care despite not having a local clinic. 

According to Puget Sound VA Health Care System Executive Director Dr. Thomas Bundt, the main reason for the Chehalis clinic’s closure was high patient care costs. It was located at the Lewis County Mall prior to closing last year. 

“Coming in at an $4 million annual price tag, the per-patient expenses under that contract were actually the highest in the entire nation. Beginning in August, our mobile medical unit has been here caring for patients locally,” Bundt said. 

The VA has recently opened new clinics in other areas, including in Edmonds and Pyyallup. Bundt added that talks have been held considering a clinic in Longview. 

Mobile Medical Unit Operations Manager Deborah Archer broke down the choice to close the Chehalis clinic.

“The contract price was so high that we were not able to renew that contract,” Archer said. 

She said when the VA clinic in Chehalis closed in October 2021, roughly 3,400 veterans were receiving care there. About 3,000 chose to be transferred to the clinic in Olympia, while roughly 400 elected to find health care within their own communities instead. One of the biggest reasons why is the distance many in Lewis County must travel to get to the Olympia clinic. 

Archer said around 2,000 of the veterans fell within the standard 30-minute drive time to get to the clinic in Olympia with another 1,000 having to travel more than 30 minutes in order to receive care. 

Another option is telehealth conferences. The VA would provide tablets for veterans to use to schedule and participate.

Despite veterans being transferred to the Olympia clinic and the weekly deployment of the mobile medical unit, many of those in attendance still felt it was not enough to help veterans receive medical care.

Heidi Palmer, veterans service officer for Lewis County Public Health & Social Services and an Army veteran, said because roughly 10% of the county’s population is made up of veterans and many are older and live in rural areas, the telehealth conferences were not a viable option. 

“With our pretty large senior community for veterans, that’s not really gonna be accessible very much, especially out in East County. If you’ve ever been out in Randle, Morton, that area, reception doesn’t exist so iPads are not gonna work. A lot of them don’t even know how to use their smartphones, so that’s a huge problem,” Palmer said. “Receiving an iPad, for a senior who does not enjoy computers and has to rely on their grandchildren or great-grandchildren to operate their phones, there needs to be some sort of alternative method.”   

According to Archer, the VA does provide training resources to help veterans learn how to use the tablets. 

Palmer also brought up a rumor that had been circulating that veterans who elect to use the mobile medical unit when it visits Chehalis were being subsequently dropped by their original VA primary care provider. 

“Our veterans who are served by the mobile medical unit are still enrolled in Olympia. Our mobile medical unit has a different provider than they may have had in Olympia, so they get to make a choice to either stay with the provider in Olympia or they can be a part of the mobile medical unit with the provider who is assigned to this unit,” Archer said. “Also, when veterans are assigned to the mobile medical unit they have the full range of services for Olympia, so the provider who comes out here every Wednesday also works in Olympia so they have services in both of those locations with the same provider.” 

Randle resident and Marine Corps veteran Jack Kerr brought up several other issues, including the apparent need for referrals to get seen at the mobile medical unit and long hold times for veterans attempting to call the VA. 

“We were told you have to have a referral from your VA medical team to get an appointment on the bus, and that’s taken some of them very long to get. Another thing is the phone system the VA has needs a lot of work,” Kerr said. “Most of the older veterans, about 15 minutes being put on hold is their limit, then they hang up. I have talked to one lady who stayed on hold for over six hours. A friend of mine who’s got more patience than I do was on hold for two hours and 15 minutes.”

He added that a member of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office had recently been able to get an additional 25 more people to handle phone calls but from what he's heard hold times really haven’t changed. Kerr also repeated that lack of internet in rural areas was a major issue for many. 

He said from what he had been told the mobile medical unit could only handle 8 patients per day with no walk-ins. 

Lewis County Commissioner Lee Grose added that he was disappointed in wait times for veterans attempting to get consults or appointments scheduled, which VA representatives stated happened for a variety of reasons, including lack of staff and community providers. 

“I can get on the phone tomorrow and call Swedish Hospital and have an appointment on Tuesday to see a doctor. I’ve done it so I know it’s true, and you’re saying it takes 58 days from the time a veteran initially makes contact till he can maybe get an appointment if everything goes right, that’s totally unacceptable,” Grose said. “I’m sorry, it’s totally unacceptable, when I, as a common citizen, can make an appointment with my doctor at Swedish Hospital in five days and you’re gonna make an appointment (for a veteran) if he can possibly get through on the phone, to community care to be able to talk to someone to make an appointment to get a consult, and he’s still got 58 days minimum before he gets his appointment.” 

Another veteran in attendance who served in both the Navy and Arizona National Guard, Christopher Reese, shared his own personal experience in trying to get health care through the VA in Lewis County. 

“You said your minimum wait time for people waiting for community care was about six months behind? That’s wrong, and I can tell you that’s wrong. I moved here in August of 2020 and I am still waiting to receive mental health care,” Reese said. 

He said he was ashamed to have to keep using the VA.

“Your VA clinic doesn’t want to do anything to help me and doesn’t want to continue to provide me with the proper medical care I deserve. I’m a recovered opioid addict. Guess who made me that addict? The VA. I left the Navy in 2006 and the doctor handed me opioid pills like they were candy. I got a three-month supply every time from 2006 until 2009,” Reese said. “I requested to come off the opioids and I was ostracized by the Phoenix VA healthcare system. Told that I was making everything up in my head and told that the only reason I fired a doctor was because I was looking for pills. I’m sorry, I was requesting to come off of pills.”   

His disability prevented him from working at all, which wasn’t helping his mental health either during his ongoing 16-year battle with the VA in both Arizona and Washington, he said.

“I will never be able to work again a day in my life and I can’t stand that. I’d rather have a bullet right here than not be able to be a productive member of society. Two years now I’ve been waiting for mental health (care). Two years, and I have been waiting for a followup appointment since May for my back. I’m in excruciating pain every single day. Do you all know what arachnoiditis is? That’s what I suffer from. I live with a condition where scar tissue is ripping apart my spinal cord,” Reese said. 

He stated he had contacted every representative he could think of but only got political runaround responses. VA representatives at the town hall took Reese’s information to attempt to remedy his situation. 

“I left the Navy in ‘06 and I left the Arizona National Guard in 2009 and since then I have done nothing but fight you people. Fight you and fight you and fight you to the point where I have made an ultimatum to my doctor just a couple of weeks ago. He has a year, a year to figure out something where I can live comfortably or either I commit suicide or they cut off my legs,” Reese said.