A small group of military veterans gathered Wednesday morning at the Veterans Memorial Hall and Museum in downtown Sonora for a quarterly meeting with officials from the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

The seven local veterans spent an hour peppering the officials with questions and sharing concerns largely centering on the need for better communication with other health care providers, though several wanted to make it clear they weren’t opposed to the VA.

“When I talk to veterans in town, they don’t want to do away with the VA system because you guys understand us,” Larry Bramblett, president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 391 in Sonora, told the officials at the end of the meeting on Wednesday.

The officials explained some upcoming changes to the system that they hope will improve services for veterans in more rural areas, including the VA Mission Act that goes into effect in June and will allow more veterans to get services closer to home if they so choose.

Veterans in Tuolumne County can go to a VA clinic in Sonora for most of their basic health care needs, but must travel to VA hospitals in Livermore or Palo Alto for more specialized treatments and procedures.

A new VA clinic that will be located in French Camp is expected to break ground in fall or winter and will open in 2022.

Li Gapasin, chief of business administration service for the VA Palo Alto system, said the Mission Act will replace the Veterans Choice Program, which she described as well intentioned but had become more confusing than necessary due to legislative fixes over the years that aimed to make it less stringent.

After the VA Mission Act goes into effect, veterans who live more than a 30-minute drive away from a VA primary care clinic or an hour from a specialty care clinic or VA hospital will be able to seek authorization to go to an outside provider.

Gapasin said the previous program’s criteria allowed people to get care from other providers if they lived at least 40 miles from a VA facility, but that also meant Tuolumne County veterans would still have to go to VA hospitals in Livermore or Palo Alto if either provided the services they needed.

Veterans will still have the option of going to Palo Alto for services rather than somewhere closer, which some said they prefer because of the quality of care.

“It’s really up to our veterans if they want to get services closer to home, or travel to Palo Alto for the top notch care we provide,” Gapasin said.

The system is also trying to make it easier on veterans who might have trouble getting to the hospital in Palo Alto, which is a roughly three-hour drive from Sonora, by recently investing in two vans, four drivers, a mobility manager and transportation coordinator.

Gapasin said they are still working to get the transportation up and running, while also forming a partnership with the ride-sharing service Lyft to drive vets who need additional help getting to and from appointments.
Officials also talked about some long-standing challenges, particularly when it comes to recruiting medical professionals for clinics in rural areas like Sonora.

Nora Lynn B. Dwinell, the East Bay operations manager for the VA Palo Alto system, said they now have the primary-care side of the Sonora clinic fully staffed with two doctors, but they still lack a psychiatrist.

Dwinell said they are doing telepsychiatry via video conferencing at the Sonora clinic because of the lack of psychiatrists in the area and those willing to make the move.

John Bright, a Marine Corps veteran who served in the Vietnam War, and Barry Schloffel, an Air Force veteran who served from 1968 to 1969, both shared positive recent experiences having to get care through the VA, but Schloffel acknowledged that isn’t always the case for everyone.

“I needed a service that wasn’t available at the (Sonora) clinic, so they sent me to Adventist Health Sonora at the end of February and things were done within a matter of a day,” Schloffel said. “I think we’ve all heard horror stories, and I’m sure they’re out there on an individual case-by-case basis.”

The VA Palo Alto system serves more than 67,000 veterans and consists of hospitals in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Livermore, as well as outpatient clinics in Sonora, Modesto, Capitola, Fremont, Stockton, Monterey, and San Jose.

Gary Mendez, associate director of the VA Palo Alto system, said the Sonora clinic served about 2,600 veterans last year. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey estimated there were slightly fewer than 5,000 veterans in Tuolumne County out of a population of about 54,000.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.