“I am especially disturbed that this loss of health care services for Oregon's veterans seems to be happening behind closed doors,” Wyden wrote. “Such a life-changing decision for our veterans in the rural, southern part of the state seems to be taking place with no public discussion — and no plan in place to make sure that our veterans can continue getting the care they need.”
Sharon Carlson, spokeswoman for the Roseburg hospital, denied that the VA was eliminating inpatient services. And no decision has been made on whether to close down the Emergency Department, although that is being looked at, she said.
The hospital is negotiating, she said, with Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg and with Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene-Springfield to provide care, on a contract basis, to veterans requiring intensive care treatment. Over the past two years, the VA hospital has averaged two patients per day in the six-bed ICU unit.
“We're not reducing services. We're just reworking them,” Carlson said.
The Roseburg system serves about 62,000 veterans in Southern Oregon, Central Oregon and Northern California. It operates clinics in Eugene, Brookings, Bend and Crescent City, Calif.
In his letter, Wyden said he was worried that veterans unable to obtain services at the Roseburg hospital could overburden local community hospitals or would have to travel long distances to be treated at another VA hospital.
He asked Shinseki to suspend any planned reductions in service until the VA provides a written plan for how veterans will be able to receive any services no long provided at the Roseburg hospital.
“I also request that your staff provide me with a complete description of all reductions being considered and the timeline for these reductions, as well as the reasons the VA considers these reductions to be necessary,” Wyden wrote.
Last January, the former head of the Emergency Department at the Roseburg VA said funding shortfalls and inadequate staffing had prompted the hospital to turn away a growing number of veterans, causing them to go to civilian hospitals.
Less than a third of the 33 veterans transported by ambulance for emergency care during one month in late 2008 were accepted by the VA. The other 21 patients were sent to another hospital, Dr. Charlie Ross said.
Ross served in the position from November 2007 until resigning in July 2008. He remained on staff, however, until being told he would no longer be needed shortly before he spoke out.
At the time, Carlson said 10 percent of patients over the previous four months had been diverted to other medical centers. The diversions were necessary, she said, because the VA did not have room for them.
Wyden said he was concerned about the Roseburg facility in light of the recent loss of five inpatient beds at the VA hospital at Walla Walla, Wash., which serves veterans from northeastern Oregon. The elimination of those beds caused the loss of vital services such as acute mental health care and medical detoxification, he said.
Oregon is preparing to welcome home 3,000 new veterans from Iraq and an equal number will return from Afghanistan in coming years. That will increase the number of veterans seeking services from VA facilities in the state, including the Roseburg hospital, Wyden said.