Fix turns to failure for some vets

Last spring, Jeff Honeycutt had a problem with his volunteer-based van transportation system taking veterans from the Bremerton Community Based Outpatient Clinic to the hospital in American Lake or Seattle. As director of Volunteer Services for the regional VA healthcare system, including American Lake, he oversees a network of vans running from many communities in Western Washington to the two hospitals. Until that “problem” cropped up, Honeycutt had not known the Bremerton Disabled American Veterans van system was out of compliance with VA directives. Beyond following directives, as far as he is concerned his changes made the system more “reliable.”

Veterans in Bremerton said before the change theirs was considered one of the best such DAV van systems in the state.

In June, Honeycutt moved ride scheduling from Bremerton to Tacoma, took one of two vans away, ended rides from home to the Bremerton clinic (the ride nexus to hospitals and specialists), instituted a 5-day advance reservation system and put the one remaining van under the control of a DAV van system in Port Angeles. He created a schedule with rides to American Lake two days a week and Seattle on the others. Veterans still have to call and schedule the ride.

Following the changes, Kitsap County veterans developed a problem with the transportation system, saying they no longer had access to control their vans, which were in part paid for locally. As a result of the changes, vets were missing appointments and had no chance to take advantage of last-minute medical appointment openings with specialists in areas such as neurology that are available to veterans with more means or those who live closer to the hospitals in King County and Pierce County.

Many in the veteran services organizations of Kitsap County say the change shows a continued lack of understanding of the needs of veterans in the West Sound. Regardless of Honeycutt’s motive or VA directives, veterans say it’s been nothing but problems for months since the change.

Honeycutt in late September said that he had heard there were some complaints since the changes took effect, but had not seen any himself.

“I have called for reservations at the new office and never received a call back,” wrote Jan Davis. She has the task of arranging trips to the VA hospital in Seattle for her husband who suffers from early onset dementia. Even if the scheduler called back, Davis said, in a letter sent to the Bremerton Disabled American Veterans office, that she doubts that her husband could make the now required all-day trip to Seattle via American Lake.

Previously, with two vans, John Davis could get to Seattle without first going to American Lake, south of Tacoma.

That other van helped collect veterans unable to drive from their homes around the county and into the Bremerton VA clinic at 925 Adele Avenue for connections to the regional hospitals. The ride to the clinic and then on to the hospital was one that Navy veteran Lester Berglund relied on for years as doctors worked to treat holes in the skin covering his lower legs. Treatment included changing his wraps three times a week.

Following the changes to a more central van scheduling system, Berglund said he has missed several appointments when drivers didn’t show and that his wrappings are being addressed one day a week. If a veteran misses three appointments, continued healthcare benefits are in jeopardy.

To make appointments, now that the system has one van, Berglund gets up at 4 a.m. to catch two busses to get from home to the Bremerton Clinic in time to catch the van on to the hospitals.

Others joined Burglund and Davis in complaints. One rider, Michelle Peterson of Port Orchard said her ride to an appointment at the Bremerton clinic was canceled because, the scheduler told her, rides were being focused on American Lake and Seattle.

Honeycutt said that the complaints he was made aware of during the interview for this story “were good feedback” and that he would be happy to return the second van to Bremerton, but there is a lack of volunteer drivers qualified to do the driving in Bremerton. The significant point, he said, is that the DAV van ride to the hospital is not a entitlement program and as such it’s beholden to the number of qualified volunteers on hand.

“Right now that’s the piece that’s missing,” Honeycutt said. “We need to recruit more volunteer drivers.”

Last spring, when Honeycutt first took action, he did so after the primary driver in Bremerton was forced to resign over something “somewhat confidential” that ended his volunteer work. That driver covered four of five days and without him, only one day could be covered consistently. So, Honeycutt put the vans under the control of Port Angeles. He said Bremerton was lucky that Port Angeles had enough volunteers to include them.

Joel Courreges is the commander of DAV Bremerton #5 and the local transportation director. After the first changes were presented last June by Honeycutt, Courreges started to complain about the regional VA taking away DAV vans and changing the system. The moves by Honeycutt infringed on local autonomy and disrupted a system that was “community domain” for years, he said.

“I disapproved of the set up from the beginning,” Courreges said. “Now everyone worries.”

Kitsap County Veteran Assistance Program coordinator Leif Bentsen said regardless of what happens, the need remains to have a five-day-a-week transportation system that gets local veterans to their appointments regardless if they are at the Bremerton clinic or the more distant hospitals.

“In a timely manner,” Bentsen said emphatically.

Kitsap County Veterans Advisory Committee member Fred Scheffler said the problems with the new van scheduling and ride systems are the result of the Puget Sound VA Regional Healthcare System’s administration, on the whole, being one of the poorer in the nation, ranked 182 out of 183.

“The administration doesn’t care,” he said, during a recent briefing on the matter.

In the short term, Courreges is preparing a fix to the local veteran transportation shortage that buys a used van to be exclusively run by the Bremerton DAV, with the right amount of flexibility to serve the transportation needs of “his” veterans as they pop up day to day.

Whether or not Courreges is jumping the gun remains to be seen. Honeycutt said it’s possible that once enough volunteer drivers are enlisted, he would return the second van and scheduling to Bremerton.

“If there is still a need [for a second van] and it sounds like their is, it is what we want to do,” Honeycutt said.