Nearly four years ago, the $100 million Maj. Gen. William H. Gourley Veterans Affairs-Department of Defense Clinic in Marina was opened to great fanfare, hailed as a place where Central Coast veterans and active duty service members and their dependents would receive quality care. The pharmacy, built at a cost of $1.9 million, remained empty on opening day. Local veterans who were used to having a pharmacy at the old clinic on the former Fort Ord waited patiently for the new one to open, only to learn the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, of which the clinic is a part, had no intention of using it.
That decision left veterans – including one of the largest concentrations of World War II veterans in the Palo Alto system, according to Jack Murphy in Monterey County’s Office of Military and Veterans Affairs – forced to use sometimes unreliable mail service or navigate public pharmacies ill-equipped to help a military population.
In addition, homeless veterans often are unable to use mail service because of their transient nature, says Kurt Schake, executive director of the Veterans Transition Center. At any given time the VTC cares for 100 veterans, approximately 60 percent of them disabled and 75 percent on medications. “They would be greatly served if they had a pharmacy about a half-a-mile away from the center,” Schake says.
This year, the Covid-19 pandemic presented a new challenge as well as potential opportunity. When it was announced that local veterans would have to travel to the Bay Area to get Covid-19 vaccinations, Murphy, who is himself a veteran, pushed back. He pointed out to VA officials they had a pharmacy in Marina where a freezer to store vaccines could be set up and vaccinations administered. Officials didn’t open the pharmacy, but they did arrange pop-up clinics.
Murphy and others began a lobbying campaign. They enlisted the help of the boards of supervisors in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties plus city councils with letters of support to U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, who is also a veteran who sits on the House Committee on Armed Services.
Murphy also created a survey asking veterans about their experiences. He hoped for 200 responses, and has received over 700. Ninety percent of respondents said a pharmacy at the Marina clinic would benefit their quality of care. Sixty percent said they had run out of medicine waiting for more to arrive, and 54 percent said either they or someone they knew were skipping doses or rationing medications. (The survey is available until June 14 at bit.ly/vapharmacysurvey.)
“This would be a low-hanging win for the VA,” Murphy says.
Over 160 veterans included optional written comments sharing their challenges. One veteran detailed how his pain was at a “10” but was told it would take a week to 10 days to receive his medicine in the mail. A person identifying themselves as a veteran and a VA employee said asking patients during a pandemic to go from the clinic and then expose themselves at a public pharmacy was “irresponsible and risks their health.”