On Dec. 12, about 100 veterans gathered for a town hall meeting in a shiny new conference room, with a sweeping view of Monterey Bay, on the third floor of the Maj. Gen. William H. Gourley Veterans Affairs-Department of Defense Clinic in Marina. The $100 million facility opened for business on Aug. 14, but four months later the pharmacy doors were still shut. The vets thought that the brass from the VA Palo Alto Health Care System – including director Tony Fitzgerald – were there to tell them an opening date.
Instead, “they gave us this piece of paper,” says Army veteran and Veterans Transition Center board member Sid Williams, referring to a single-page “frequently asked questions” sheet about why the VAPAHCS was closing both its San Jose and Marina pharmacies. “As you can imagine, that was not well received by the veteran community.” Two months later it continues to consternate local veterans. (The Marina clinic serves an estimated 10,000 veterans and active-duty service members in the Monterey Bay region.)
There was a pharmacy in the former clinic building in Seaside, staffed by two pharmacists who vets say spent time with each patient explaining how to use their medications and answering questions. The new pharmacy in Marina was built at a cost of $1.9 million, including furniture and equipment, according to VA Public Affairs Officer Damian McGee. But in recent years the VA started shutting down clinic pharmacies across the country to cut costs, moving patients to mail order services and – in cases where medicine was needed immediately – to nearby pharmacies under contract with the VA. Despite this trend, the VA completed the build-out of the Marina pharmacy. (A small portion of the space in Marina will be used for emergency medicines, McGee says.)
“If you look at it on the surface, it seems like a reasonable way to get the medicine to veterans,” Williams says. “But they should know that the veteran population is not like the general population. They’ve gone through some things that have left them wounded physically and/or emotionally.”
Williams is especially worried about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries, who have trouble managing day-to-day activities, like making sure their medicines are ordered in advance of running out.
Also of concern are elderly veterans who no longer drive and come to the clinic via shuttle services. There’s a pharmacy at the Marina Target less than a mile away, but “if you’re 85 years old and walk with a walker, it might as well be 100,000 miles away,” Williams says. He thinks VA officials should at least offer a shuttle to the nearest pharmacy and back. Although the VA is not mandated to transport veterans to fill prescriptions, McGee says in an email, “We are working with our community partners to assist veterans when possible.”
Other problems vets are experiencing include prescribed medicines not being available at area pharmacies, and a cumbersome VA phone system that prevents them from getting immediate help when issues arise.
Williams says he’s not knocking the entire VA system, nor the local clinic. He remains hopeful they will find a way to open. “It’s a major oversight,” he says. “I think they can find a way to do that if they want to, and I think they should.”