View Full Version : County's veterans clinics 'feeling the war every day'

03-10-08, 10:04 AM
County's veterans clinics 'feeling the war every day'

Officials struggle to stay ahead of surge in patients
By Rick Rogers

March 7, 2008

The number of military veterans lining up for treatment in the county is increasing so fast that a fourth Veterans Affairs clinic for North County is being mulled even before a shovel of dirt is turned for the third.

Each week, an average of 45 people join the Department of Veterans Affairs patient rolls in San Diego County. They are fueling one of the fastest-growing VA medical populations in the nation.

VA officials expect to serve about 60,000 patients this year. They are struggling to stay ahead of the rising demand, even with a staff of 3,784 nurses, doctors and volunteers at their main medical center in La Jolla and five clinics scattered across the county.

The challenge likely will remain for decades, the VA leaders said. That's partly because it has been difficult for them to make definite plans when they don't know how long the Iraq war will last – and thus how many more wounded combat veterans will seek VA treatment.

“We are feeling the war every day,” said Gary Rossio, director of the San Diego VA Healthcare System since 1996. “I think that the numbers will only go up.”

Many of the VA's new patients are Marine combat veterans in their 20s to early 30s suffering physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. If they mirror past generations of veterans, they'll be needing VA care for the next half-century or more.

Rossio said areas of North County, especially those around Camp Pendleton, are experiencing the patient influx most acutely.

The VA clinic in Vista has seen its patient load increase 20 percent this fiscal year over the previous one. It also reported a 33 percent jump in appointments during that time – to a record 24,683.

Yesterday, two Vista clinic patients who were interviewed at random praised the VA staff.

One of them, Dennis Wesseldine of Vista, said it can take a while to obtain an appointment, but that it's worth the wait.

“Oh, that's awesome. You're on my Christmas list,” Wesseldine said when a VA employee offered him an appointment the next day instead of three weeks from now, as he had first been told.

“I am very blessed to have the VA in my life,” said Wesseldine, 54, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. “The cool thing is that they have my full records in front of them.”

“It's a pretty good place,” said Gale Mullaney, 55, of Valley Center. “If you want help, they'll help you. They're pretty informative.”

Longtime patients and new veterans have combined to create a surge in VA enrollment that Rossio and other military experts expect to peak after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars end.

The worst-is-coming scenario has prompted the San Diego VA Healthcare System to commit to building a clinic along state Route 78 between Oceanside and Escondido by 2010. Another clinic in North County could follow by as early as 2013.

Rossio said the 2010 clinic technically could be at capacity before it even opens.

“We are trying to provide more support to Marines coming out of North County,” Rossio said. “We know this is where the future is.”

Andre Simpson, vice president and chief operations officer for the Veterans Village of San Diego, agrees that more veterans will require VA services.

Simpson said five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are in-patients at Veterans Village. A year ago, the center never housed more than one or two such veterans at a time.

“We've seen a slow increase,” Simpson said. “I don't think it takes a crystal ball to tell that there are going to be more ill veterans in the future. I think the effects will hit each individual at some point in their lives.”

A coordinated, communitywide effort will be necessary to handle veterans issues effectively in the future, said Jon Nachison, co-founder of Stand Down, the annual aid program for homeless veterans that began in San Diego and has spread nationwide.

“I think the biggest wave has yet to come,” Nachison said. “We have men who are struggling with PTSD or traumatic brain injury who keep getting deployed constantly. . . . There is going to be a point when they come back, and I think at that point we are going to see our services overwhelmed.”

When the day comes, Nachison said, everyone from police officers and judges to military commanders and mental health specialists must step up to help.

“It is part of what it means to send people off to war,” Nachison said.

Rossio remembers how lacking VA hospitals were in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He hopes there is no return to the past.

“We just want to make sure we are more ready to meet the needs of the current vets than was the case in past conflicts,” Rossio said. “We have to do a better job this time.”

Rick Rogers: (760) 476-8212; rick.rogers@uniontrib.com