Area veterans makes case for regional clinic

Bob Harrington of Craig makes about five trips every year to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Grand Junction.

The Korean War veteran has to get his blood pressure checked and his prescription re-prescribed regularly.

"They're increasing as I'm getting older," the 73-year-old said of his trips.

Harrington usually rides to the hospital with a few other vets who also have doctor's appointments, so the drive commonly takes up to eight hours round trip.

"It's an all-day affair," Harrington said. "In the wintertime, it's kind of hectic."

The former Navy sailor said the care in Grand Junction has always been good, but driving there can be a hassle.

If there were a Veterans Affairs hospital in the region, or if the VA would allow him to use a local hospital for his check-ups, Harrington wouldn't have to drive to Grand Junction.

"I think Steamboat Springs would be within our range," Harrington said.

Local veteran Charley Watkins has been trying to get a VA clinic in the area for years, but to no avail.

"We need one up here very badly," Watkins said.

The VA has 11 Community Based Outpatient Clinics, CBOCs, in Colorado, but none in Northwest Colorado.

Watkins said some CBOC locations don't make sense and aren't fair to veterans. One example, Watkins said, is the Montrose CBOC, which is about 60 miles from the Grand Junction Hospital.

"We served honorably up here, just like everywhere else in the state," Watkins said.

"We should get the same consideration as vets all over the country and we have not gotten that."

Colorado falls under Veteran's Integrated Service Network 19 based in Denver.

VISN 19 has plans to build three more CBOCs in the Rocky Mountain region, but none of them are in Northwest Colorado. VA plans to build two in Montana and one in suburban Salt Lake City.

Watkins testified before U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar in Grand Junction last week about the need for a CBOC in Northwest Colorado.

He also presented Salazar with a plaque inscribed with a quote from Calvin Coolidge that reads: "A nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten."

When veterans aren't treated well, which Watkins said is happening to the veterans in the region, the hopes of recruiting people for military service are slim.

"Kids won't join if their parents aren't treated well," Watkins said.

When Salazar was in Craig last week, he told Moffat County commissioners that Northwest Colorado's vets shouldn't have to travel to Grand Junction.

"They shouldn't have to wait that long," Salazar told the commissioners after he addressed local residents.

The senator said he is working on a plan to give grants to the organizations that drive veterans to hospitals, like the Veteran's Service office.

County commissioners also support the idea of a CBOC in the region.

"I believe it's needed," Commissioner Saed Tayyara said Friday.

Tayyara said he would like to see a clinic in Craig, but he would be happy with one in Meeker or Steamboat as well.

Watkins said his original plan was for a CBOC in Craig, but he now believes Steamboat is a better option because it's more centralized for veterans in Kremmling and Walden.

"It would be nice (to have a CBOC in Craig), I would love it," Watkins said. "But, I'm also realistic."

Anita Urdiales, a spokeswoman for VA in Denver, said VA understands the concerns of local veterans.

In a statement, Urdiales said: "VISN 19 recognizes the unique challenges and opportunities that exist in providing access to health-care delivery in the 'frontier west.'"

The statement says CBOC placement is based on local need and takes into account the number of veterans enrolled with the VA in a given area. According to Urdiales' statement, 394 veterans from Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties received care at VISN 19 facilities in 2003.

But Watkins said there are more than 5,000 veterans in the area, many of whom don't use VA facilities because they are simply too far away.

"There are a whole lot more vets here than are being treated," Watkins said.

Brandon Johansson can be reached at 824-7031 or bjohansson@craigdailypress.com

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