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Helping Veterans Heal, Part 2 - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Helping Veterans Heal, Part 2

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

"When I came here to this VA I was very sick. I was very suicidal; I had a lot of suicide attempts. And it was this facility and the doctors that I worked with and the treatment team I had that-- and I had a lot of relapses during that time-- that got me back on my feet," veteran Dave Morgan said.

As you tell from Morgan's story, he credits the White River Junction Veterans Hospital with saving his life.

"That's kind of a miracle in its own," Morgan said.

He's using that experience to get other Vermont veterans help with a group he started, Vet to Vet. All volunteers, all veterans-- working independent of the Veterans Affairs to bring other veterans into care and help them navigate the bureaucracy.

"By being just volunteers-- we're not clinicians, we're not doctors-- we can kind of say and do things that the staff here can't," Morgan explained.

The hospital says it's that peer bond that's allowing Vet to Vet to go places doctors can't.

"They've really been, you know, a pivotal force in the state in terms of helping veterans in need of care to maybe understand the VA is a resource," said Dr. Stephen Kelliher, a psychologist at the VA.

Helping 1,500 veterans over the past seven years. But a nationwide scandal is making that job tougher. Forged waiting lists in places like Phoenix have led to increased scrutiny of VA hospitals across the country.

The national audit cleared Vermont's VA of any involvement in such schemes. Even just the headlines, though, are hurting the work Morgan and his team are trying to do.

"When it stays this constant negative, negative, negative, all those who were just thinking of coming in for help... It really just keeps pushing those people a little further back," Morgan said.

He says at least three veterans they've been working with have backed out of getting care.

"Almost ready to get in the car and come down. So, we're still working on them. We're still checking on them, still telling them it does not happen in White River Junction, it's not happening in Burlington," Morgan said.

In fact, the audit found waiting times in Vermont's VA better than national average. In 98 percent of cases, patients are seen in less than 30 days.

"We think at White River we do a pretty good job at getting people in as soon as they want to be seen, as often as they want to be seen, and for as long as they want to be seen," said Dr. E. Lanier Summerall of the VA in White River Junction.

The hospital says one of those things keeping wait times down is a unique system integrating primary and mental health care.

"It's right there in primary care. They don't have to come over to a different desk. They don't have to sit in a different waiting room, where people would identify them as mental health patients," Summerall explained.

And doctors talk with patients about mental health during the course of things like routine physicals. If there are issues, the veteran can go right over to talk with a psychiatrist.

"Whereas if they were handed a card that said come back in six months, they may never come back to see one," Summerall said.

At any time, veterans can walk into the mental health clinic and be seen generally in less than 45 minutes. The same can't be said for VA facilities in other parts of the country, where backlogs are leading to months-long wait times.

The fight now moves from VA waiting rooms to Washington, where lawmakers are scrambling to make a deal for veterans improved care. As ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is smack dab in the middle of that funding fight.

"Understanding that the United States Congress today is quite dysfunctional, that nothing happens in general, I think we're making some progress," said Sanders, I-Vermont.

Veterans' care is certainly a bipartisan issue. Case-in-point: Sanders has teamed up with Arizona Senator John McCain.

"Senator McCain and I worked on a bill that got 93 votes in the U.S. Senate. That's pretty good," Sanders said.

Now, the bill is in conference committee, lawmakers trying to hammer out the differences between the House and Senate versions. There are some major ones.

Sanders wants to pay for veterans care outside the VA system in the short term.

"You have to deal with the immediate crisis," Sanders said. "If you are on a waiting list that doesn't get you into a doctor's office or hospital for months, what we're going to do now is say you can't get into the VA, you're going to go out to a private doctor."

And in the longer term, the interim VA head has said they need 10,000 doctors, nurses and health care professionals, and $18 billion for the next four years. Some in Congress have balked at those numbers.

Vermont's other senator has a message for those with sticker shock: "If we can find the money to send them to war, we ought to be able to find money to take care of our veterans afterward," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

For Leahy, it's personal. His wife, Marcelle, was a nurse at the VA hospital in Washington, D.C., right before the Vietnam War.

Marcelle Leahy: I remember we had one elderly gentleman that came in that was a veteran of the Spanish-American War.

Sen. Patrick Leahy: We're dating ourselves, Marcelle.

Marcelle Leahy: No, no. I was dating him (laughs). But the care and the needs at that time were different than they are right now.

Now, Mrs. Leahy says there's so much more demand on the VA system with hundreds of thousands of veterans returning home from America's longest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And she says the medicine has changed, no longer just treating the visible wounds, but also the ones we can't see, like post-traumatic stress disorder. Though, through it all, she says, one thing hasn't changed: "I feel very strongly that when our men and women sign up to serve their country, they promise to do their best. And I think they deserve to get the best health care possible."

That nation's promise many feel is going unfulfilled.

In terms of that emergency funding, Sanders says he is willing to accept a key demand from House Republicans-- budget cuts to offset the total cost of the bill. They hope to nail down a deal before the August recess.

Related Story:

Helping Veterans Heal, Part 1
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