VA clinic expansion may cut wait time

Some veterans waiting 3 months to see doctor

Area veterans have been forced to wait up to three months to see a doctor in Durango. Those delays should ease as a new physician’s assistant was brought on board last week.

Montezuma County Veteran Service Officer Rick Torres said he has received numerous complaints about the loss of a doctor at the Durango Contract Community Based Outpatient Clinic. He said the extended wait times have created desperation for many.

“That’s uncalled for in the greatest country in the world,” Torres added.

Last week, after an extensive nationwide search, Amalia Solano was tapped as the new physician’s assistant at the clinic. She’s previously served as a physician’s assistant with the U.S. Air Force, and Torres is hopeful she will bring some relief.

“I’ve heard a lot of grumblings, and what I’ve told our veterans is give them a chance,” Torres said. “Let’s see how it works.”

“If it doesn’t work, then we will go to the higher- ups,” he concluded.

David Johnson, Commander of VFW Post 5231 in Montezuma County, said he’s thankful a new staff member has been added to the Durango clinic. He said forcing veterans to go to New Mexico for medical care was a huge concern locally.

“Driving to Albuquerque, that’s an all-day trip,” he said.

While additional personnel is helpful, Johnson said he remains concerned that the Durango clinic has yet to replace a psychologist who had to leave due to a family emergency. Johnson was one of about a dozen veterans who utilized a group PTSD counseling service in Durango.

“It’s still up in the air if that support group will reorganize,” he said. “I’m hopeful for an alternative to continue those sessions.”

Part of the New Mexico VA Health Care System, Durango’s outpatient clinic delivers primary care services such as routine lab tests, electrocardiograms, social work services and doctor evaluations. No emergency services are offered.

“It’s basic medical care,” Torres explained. “If you go in with an injury that requires emergency treatment, they aren’t set up for that.”

In addition to new staff, officials from the New Mexico VA system announced last week that Valor Healthcare Inc. would take over management responsibilities at the Durango clinic starting in April. Health Net Federal Services currently operates the facility.

VA spokesperson William Armstrong said the Durango clinic is also expected to expand its 4,800-square-foot space by 1,000 square feet. The extra space would enable the clinic to accommodate additional telemedicine services for veterans. A timeline for the expansion has yet to be announced.

About 2,400 veterans reside in Montezuma County. When local veterans need advanced medical care, most are forced to make a trek to Albuquerque. The price of gas impacts veterans economically, but the drive also plays a physical role, Torres said.

“Especially for older veterans, it can be a very demanding drive,” he said.

To help ease those strains, a shuttle can transport veterans from Cortez to Albuquerque. While in New Mexico, the VA clinic also offers veterans and family members a place to spend the night at Hero’s Hall.

Torres believes the country has an obligation to assist those who sacrifice the prime of their lives to defend the nation. He also believes the country could always do more, but he’s realistic and understands budgetary concerns are a major driver. When you spend more on one item, then you have to reduce spending on another, he said.

“It’s incumbent upon our leaders to balance that and not turn their backs on our veterans,” he concluded.

After a 20-year career in the military, Torres retired from the Marine Corps in 2002. Highlights of his military service include serving as a drill instructor at Paris Island and as a chief drill instructor in San Diego, helping turn several hundred young men into Marines, he said. Torres added he’s also proud to have served a nine-month combat tour in Desert Storm.

“It was a very fulfilling career,” Torres said.

Prior to relocating to Cortez last May, Torres served in Florida as a veteran service officer for about a decade. Most states, including Colorado, require all veteran service officers to have served in combat. Torres said those credentials and experience help veteran service officers sympathize with those they are charged with assisting.

The Montezuma County veteran’s service office helps direct veterans and family members with markers, presidential memorials, burial benefits, healthcare, disability benefits and even pensions for spouses.

For more, contact Rick Torres at (970) 564-2779 or rtorres@co.montezuma.co.us.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com