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VA officials say Pikes Peak region a 'role model' for the nation

December 4, 2015 Updated: December 4, 2015 at 4:05 am

Department of Veterans Affairs officials held up the Pikes Peak region as "a role model" for the nation Thursday, citing the close partnerships between local groups that offer help for veterans.

The federal agency remains troubled here, with one-third of Colorado Springs veterans waiting a month or more for care. But Danny Pummill, the agency's acting undersecretary, said local groups are helping fill in when his agency falls short.

"You guys have broken the code - it is working the way it's supposed to work," Pummill said during a town hall meeting at the Norris-Penrose Event Center.

Colorado Springs is a testbed for VA efforts to better coordinate services with local governments and nonprofits through its new program "MyVA Pikes Peak region."

The agency hopes the program can help veterans get care and benefits faster. Pummill pointed to local programs to help treat PTSD, get veterans jobs and help veterans navigate the tangled VA benefits process.

"None of this would have happened if it was up to the federal government to do it," Pummill said.

Veterans at the meeting, through written questions, pounded the VA over long waiting times - among the nation's longest.

Natalie Merckens, the VA's associate health care director for eastern Colorado, said the VA is trying to cut the waits. Now, according to a VA report, veterans wait an average of 34 days in Colorado Springs for a primary care visit, 45 days for specialty care and nearly two weeks for mental health care.

Merckens said the VA hopes to cut waits by opening the doors of its West Fillmore Street clinic six days a week.

"We will have Saturday clinics and make sure we get anyone with a clinical need that's critical in to see a doctor," she said.

The VA also loosened rules for the Choice Program that allows some veterans to get care from civilian doctors.

"To my knowledge no veteran has expired due to a delay in health care," Merckens told the Colorado Springs crowd of nearly 100.

Bob McLaughlin, co-chairman of the local MyVA committee, said the VA's troubles show that local help is needed.

"The government can't do it alone. The private sector has to step up," McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin, who runs the Mount Carmel Center for Excellence in Colorado Springs, said the first goal of his nonprofit and the MyVA program is to make sure the federal agency, veterans and veterans organization are speaking the same language.

McLaughlin estimated that 70 percent of the issues veterans face with the VA involve miscommunication.

"Our focus primarily for this initiative is communication," he said.

Kate Hatten, the other co-chair of the committee, said her nonprofit, the Peak Military Care Network, is working to get local care providers to fill in for veterans who face VA delays and gaps in the federal system.

"The Peak Military Care Network is really trying to connect the dots," she said.

But fixing VA woes in the Pikes Peak region will take more than help from the community, the agency admits. Delays for care at the Colorado Springs clinic have quadrupled in one year. In November 2014, about 8 percent of local veterans waited more than a month for care, and more than 32 percent of veterans wait more than a month now.

The VA has blamed workforce problems on the delays and launched a hiring initiative early in 2015 to get more doctors and nurses.

Merckens said the VA faces a lot of competition for doctors and nurses in Colorado.

Hatten said the MyVA Pikes Peak region will give the community a voice to address VA woes. "The best way to address it is through collaboration," she said.

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