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Sen. Blunt Proposes Adding Options For Where Veterans Can Seek Care

St. Louis VA hospital
Jess Jiang
St. Louis Public Radio

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., calls it "outrageous" that the the Department of Veterans Affairs hasn't answered questions about quality and timeliness of mental health care in the VA St. Louis Health Care System. The senator met with hospital officials in St. Louis Wednesday, after allegations from the former chief of psychiatry, Dr. Jose Mathews, that mental health doctors weren't seeing enough patients and veterans were waiting a month or more to see a psychiatrist. 

Talk to a few people outside the VA hospital in St. Louis about the quality of care, and you get a spectrum of answers.

Michelle Hawkins, a Navy veteran, says she's very happy with the care she's received. She has a rare blood disorder and sees various doctors at the VA hospital. She was surprised to hear recent allegations of poor care.

Army veteran Kenneth Bourbon is less surprised. He's 55 years old, and has struggled with back pain and drug addiction. He said he sometimes has to wait a long time to see doctors, and he added that appointments can be at clinics all across the city.

At a news conference Wednesday, Blunt described a solution to the problem of slow or faraway health care. For a decade, he said, he's advocated allowing veterans to go to closer, private hospitals such as Barnes-Jewish Center or Saint Louis University Hospital.

"[Veterans] are driving by facilities that would provide equally good or better care. I think we have to look at all those options," he said. "Having more alternatives would cut down on wait times and might mean veterans wouldn't have to travel as far."


Credit Jess Jiang / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, talking in front of the St. Louis VA hospital on Wednesday.

In addition, Blunt and his colleague, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D, Mo., sent a letter asking VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to investigate the VA hospital system in St. Louis. After more than two weeks, Blunt said that he still has not received a response.

Despite that, Blunt said he doesn't think kicking out Shinseki is the answer. He explained that one resignation might make the problem take longer to fix, because it would take time for a new director to get nominated and for that person to figure out a solution. 

Blunt also noted that throwing more money at the problem doesn't make sense. The VA, he said, should instead respond in a better way to the needs of veterans.

One way to do that, he said, is to look at and adjust the model of how the VA deals with patient care. He said that the VA "may not be the only place where veterans should be in line to get care. In fact, if veterans can go other places, there may not be a line."

Bourbon, the Army veteran, worries that talk of investigations is just lip service. He said he wants to see real change in his health care, and not just talk.