World-class service at VA Medical Center

Military healthcare has been all over the news lately, and for all the wrong reasons. Fortunately for veterans living in San Diego, the problems recently uncovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington are nowhere to be seen at the VA San Diego Medical Center in La Jolla.

President Bush created a commission charged with studying military healthcare nationwide after the Washington Post reported that parts of Walter Reed were filthy and decaying and that veterans there were not given access to adequate healthcare. The commission is due to issue a report this summer and may pay a visit to the VA Medical Center San Diego located on La Jolla Village Drive, which is among the most active federal hospitals in the nation in treating veterans of the current U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the steady influx of new patients over the last four years, veterans say that care at San Diego’s veteran’s hospital is excellent.

“It is absolutely fantastic,” said Carl Dustin, a Navy World War II veteran who has been receiving care at VA Medical Center San Diego for eight years. “The place is immaculate and the people always treat you with great courtesy.”

The 238-bed medical center treats over 55,000 veterans per year from throughout San Diego and Imperial counties, most on an outpatient basis. With such a large contingent of the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan coming from Camp Pendleton in North County San Diego, the hospital has seen a surge in the number of patients, averaging 94 new patients a month over the last four years. The hospital is currently treating more than 4,500 veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“That’s approaching 9 percent of the patient population that we’re treating,” said Gary Rossio, director of the VA San Diego Healthcare System. “Our average patient is about 58 years old, and that’s getting a lot younger as the 20-somethings are getting back from Iraq and Afghanistan. The longer the war goes on, we are going to see more young people returning from combat and coming to us.”

Despite the increasing patient load, Rossio said his staff of about 2,500 has been able to maintain high levels of care. Dustin said the only problem he ever experiences at the medical center is a short wait to see a doctor, and nothing like the nightmare hours-long waits reported at Walter Reed.

“Sometimes you have to wait 10 or 15 minutes. Big deal - you do that at any doctor’s office,” Dustin said. “I’ve never had to wait longer than an hour in the last eight years.”

Rossio credited a dedicated staff for handling the influx of new patients under a somewhat tight budget of $305 million. He said 44 percent of the staff and volunteers at the hospital are veterans themselves. Rossio is an Air Force veteran.

“It’s tight for this workload that we have,” he said. “We’re always in a process of preparation, and we’ve had some relatively good budgets. Our staff is working very hard.”

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have received care for the gamut of combat-related injuries, including spinal cord injuries, amputations and treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Hearing impairment has also been a very common problem for new patients.

Cindy Butler, public affairs manager for VA San Diego Healthcare, said the medical center will be adding more combat veteran case managers to handle the new patients. The case managers screen new patients for physical and mental health, which has been an increased focus at the medical center over the last four years.

In addition to patient care, the VA San Diego Medical Center is an extremely strong research facility, with a research budget of $61 million. The medical center works closely with UCSD on research on everything “from Alzheimer’s to AIDS,” Rossio said.

The main entrance to the 35-year-old medical center building is currently closed as the facility undergoes work to comply with new, stricter seismic requirements for California hospitals. The new law is creating funding nightmares for most private hospitals in the state, but the federal medical center will have its $52.5 million retrofitting project done by July of next year.

“We’ll be one of the strongest, if not the strongest, building in San Diego in terms of healthcare,” Rossio said. “Our staff has been tolerant of the issues with the noise and dust, and the changing routes for people walking through the building. Our patients have been tolerant, too.”

Rossio said the building was reaching “middle age,” but wasn’t facing any of the problems with facilities that had been reported at Walter Reed.

“We don’t have any problems with mold or issues with maintenance like in those other places,” he said.

He said he would welcome a visit from the federal commission studying military healthcare.

“It’s possible we could get a visit,” Rossio said. “When this broke on the East Coast, we invited the Congressional staff here. We’re open.”