Veterans voice frustration over shift to Santa Maria

We’re all familiar with the inconvenient HMO requirement to consult with a primary physician before seeing a specialist, but what would you do if that specialist was 70 miles away in Santa Maria?

Scream? Rant? Cry?

That’s precisely the reaction of the more than 150 veterans who gathered Friday to voice their concerns about the Veterans’ Administration plan to shift the majority of its services to a clinic being built in the North County.

“What kind of a message are we sending to our 160,000 troops that are serving in Iraq? … The fact is that you have made a promise to our generation. Keep it,” said Vietnam veteran Bob Lewis.

Its leaky roof and inadequate facilities aside, the VA clinic at 4440 Calle Real received kudos from veterans who expressed concern that a clinic in Santa Maria would compromise their care.

“The clinic has done so much to help people,” said Bert Brounstein, a disabled Vietnam veteran who underwent 18 operations in other VA facilities he compared to prisons, before coming to Santa Barbara specifically for the high quality of care.

For approximately 10 years, $6 million in federal funds have been allocated for facility improvements in Santa Barbara. However, VA administrator Charles Dorman said the agency has not been able to find a suitable site, despite working with Moreland Corp. for the last decade.

There was talk of using part of Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital for the VA, but it never seemed to go anywhere, said Cottage Health System spokeswoman Janet O’Neill. (Goleta Valley hospital vice president) Diane Wisby sent a letter to the VA in October to discuss the hospital’s willingness to discuss options, said O’Neill.

“We were interested and we’re certainly still interested,” she said.

Some veterans expressed interest in fund raising to try to keep the VA services here, notably Larry Crandell, who has helped raise millions of dollars for local causes.

“If it’s just a matter of money, give us a chance to raise some money so I don’t have to go 70 miles to get services,” said Crandell.

The choice of Santa Maria over Santa Barbara is a monetary decision, said Dorman, who urged disgruntled veterans to contact their elected representatives.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on January 14, 2004.