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Pearce huddles with VA chief, vets

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Vietnam veteran Charlie Daniels gets $222 in gas money from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department every time he makes the four-hour drive from his home in Carlsbad to see a doctor at the Raymond G. Murphy Medical Center in Albuquerque.

Why not use that money to allow Daniels to see a private physician in his own community? U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., asked at a news conference Friday outside the gates of the VA medical center.

“It’s good for the environment, and it’s good for local doctors,” said Pearce, who traveled with a group of veterans Friday to meet with interim medical center director Dr. James Robbins and other top VA officials.

Pearce, who is running for re-election in the 2nd Congressional District, said he advocates allowing veterans access to non-VA health care if they live more than 100 miles away from a VA medical center.

Congress is considering various ways to improve access to care, including permitting veterans to receive care outside the VA under certain conditions. The proposed reforms come in response to a national scandal over long VA patient waits to see physicians – a scandal that has also ensnared the New Mexico VA health system.

The Albuquerque VA medical center is among the 37 percent of VA centers nationally that were flagged for further investigation into manipulation of patient appointment scheduling practices.

Local VA officials have confirmed that VA schedulers deviated from accepted practices in hiding long patient waits. A criminal investigation by the VA’s Office of Inspector General is ongoing.

Pearce said Friday’s closed-door meeting didn’t get into the details of the controversy.

“Basically, today was information sharing, with very positive stories and stories that are not very good,” Pearce said.

State Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, described his experience with health care at the Albuquerque VA. Brandt, who served in the U.S. Air Force, was injured during a training accident.

He said after he moved to New Mexico in 2004, it took six months to get his first appointment, another six months to get into the VA pain clinic, and another four or five months for surgery.

“The great thing is and the positive thing is, they actually were able to do a surgery here that allowed me to get out of the wheelchair and walk again. Sometimes I use a cane, sometimes I don’t. The care is great if the dice roll the right way.”

Pearce said veterans have told him that “care, when you get into the system, is actually pretty good.”

Pearce said he wanted Friday’s meeting with VA officials to be open to the news media, but said VA officials “felt uncomfortable with it.”

A VA spokeswoman cited what she said was a long-standing practice of keeping meetings between the VA medical director and members of Congress private.

Pearce said he hoped future follow-up meetings will be open to the public.

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