Some claim too much political grandstanding at union gathering over changes at VA



Lorene Coates, who is trying to keep her seat in the N.C. House of Representatives, and Larry Kissell, who is running for Congress, addressed a crowd of veterans and VA supporters at Salisbury's Holiday Inn.

So did Bill Burnette, another candidate for the N.C. House, and the husbands of Kay Hagan and Teresa Bratton. Hagan is campaigning for Elizabeth Dole's seat in the U.S. Senate, and Bratton is a political newcomer vying for a place in Congress.

"This was nothing but 'Oh, vote for me,' " veteran Gene Miller of Salisbury said after the event.

" 'Vote for me' ain't going to get the job done," added Jeff Phillips, a fellow veteran from Statesville.

Union officials, including J. David Cox, national secretary-treasurer for the American Federation of Government Employees, were there to voice their opposition to new plans for the Hefner VA Medical Center.

The hospital recently announced plans to close its emergency room, along with eliminating surgical and inpatient services. The hospital would become a mental health and long-term care facility.

Political candidates — and their spouses — who attended the event voiced support for veterans.

"I'm very disturbed about what they're trying to do at the VA hospital, and I think you should be too," Coates said.

Kissell echoed that. "We have a moral obligation to take care of our veterans," he said.

But political speeches didn't do it for some veterans, like Phillips and Miller.

Phillips called the event "a Democratic rally."

Miller, who is a post commander for AmVets in Salisbury, said he will not encourage his fellow veterans to vote for the candidates who appeared Thursday simply because they showed up.

"I can't do that," he said. "It would be unfair to them, unfair to me."

Miller said he wants elected officials to take action regarding the VA before the November vote.

Michael Victorian, a union spokesman for AFGE, said getting to know the candidates will be beneficial to VA supporters.

"We invited (veterans) here so they could meet the candidates, so if and when those candidates get elected, they can hold them accountable," Victorian said.

Despite what veterans and their families thought of the event, they agreed on one thing: They don't want the VA to change its services.

Ernest Casey, a 78-year-old Army veteran who served in Korea, said he has been going to the VA for his medical needs since 1960.

He had eye surgery at the Salisbury center, where he also got hearing aids. He went last week for a physical.

Casey said he does not have medical insurance.

"They do everything for me," he said of the VA. "If they close that place, I'm a dead duck."

Zane Robertson, 62, is a Navy veteran who said he doesn't have health insurance either.

During his three tours in Vietnam, Robertson said, he was exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical that has caused health problems for some people. Robertson said he has diabetes and other ailments.

He said he often receives services at the VA.

"I've used the emergency room probably five times this year," Robertson said.

He said he hates the thought of waiting for care in Rowan Regional Medical Center's emergency room.

Ross Moore, 53, of Statesville, said veterans can't get the intimate kind of care they receive at the VA at a public hospital.

"(My doctor) personally calls and tells you the results of blood work and anything else you got going through there," Moore said.

Robertson added, "You wouldn't get that at any other hospital."

Cox told the crowd they are "facing a crisis" with the proposed changes at the hospital.

The Salisbury VA should continue to have an emergency room, intensive care unit and inpatient services, he said.

"How do you have a medical center that serves veterans if you don't have those services?" he asked. "I think that's impossible."

Cox said veterans should never have to pay for medical care. They "paid their health premiums in full the day they served," he said.

MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer for the state AFL-CIO, said veterans deserve better.

"Folks, if we allow this to happen, you better believe this trend will continue," she said. "Enough is enough."


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