VA doctor: 'I'm protecting them from a system that's not safe'

ROSEBURG, Ore. - Dr. Steven Blum joined the staff at the Roseburg VA hospital in 2001.

"I thought I had found the best job," he said. "Honestly, I really did."

Blum said that over the last 5 years, he's seen it turn in the other direction.

"I think morale is down," he said. "Issues of patient safety."

In a recent News-Review article, the Roseburg VA hospital's chief of staff acknowledged wait times did need improvement.

An audit found the Roseburg VA hospital had one of the worst waiting times for veterans in the nation.

Senators Wyden and Merkeley expressed their outrage and called for emergency funding to help.

The VA chief in Roseburg said one of the hospital's challenges is recruiting doctors.

The VA in Roseburg declined to make anyone available to talk on camera about doctor recruitment and retention. Dr. Blum spoke to KPIC News on his own behalf, not as a representative of the VA, and on his own time outside of work hours

But a list provided by the Roseburg VA public relations director shows 31 doctors who have left the Roseburg VA.

If you include nurses in the total, over 50 health care practitioners no longer work there.

Blum said he thinks a fear of retaliation from management is just one of the reasons why practitioners leave the Roseburg VA.

He said the truth is in the numbers.

"We've had several physicans who stayed in Roseburg and still lived in Roseburg but work in other places," Blum said.

Blum believes management is the real issue. He said employee surveys consistently find low morale among staff, and he claims pointing out problems to management regarding patient safety can make you a target.

"Seeing other people who have been targeted also, I believe it's similar issues," he said. "There have been other physicians that have been disciplined or threatened with termination who I believe are very good physicians who are ethical and try to do the right thing."

Because the work is rewarding, Blum said.

"I really do enjoy the veterans," he said. "I do feel like I'm kind of - I'm protecting them in a way from a system that's not safe, and actually that's probably the main reason. I feel like someone has to advocate for them and kind of look out for them."

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs VA Access Audit & Wait Times Fact Sheet

Joint press release from Senators Wyden and Merkley

WASHINGTON - After a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) audit released earlier this week showed that Oregon's VA medical centers were among the worst in the nation for wait times, Oregon's Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden are calling on the national VA to prioritize assistance to fix long wait times at Oregon VA facilities.

In a letter sent to Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson, the two senators noted the long wait times in Oregon for primary care, specialty care, and mental health appointments, and asked for expedited assistance and emergency funding to fix the problems without delay. The VA is making additional funds available to help address the backlogs and speed care to veterans.

"These numbers are absolutely unacceptable," the senators wrote. "Those who fought for us deserve far better. [] We must keep the promises we made to those who served our country."

The audit released earlier this week showed that more than 6,600 Oregon veterans were on electronic waiting lists, with an average wait time for new primary patients of 80 days in Portland and 50 days in Roseburg. Average wait times for new patient mental health appointments were between 30 and 60 days, a concerning number given the high rate of suicide among veterans.