PTSD treatment still available to Tri-Citians

By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldOctober 20, 2013 

Veterans meet

Roberto Valdez, second from left, a psychologist with the Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs, leads a discussion group for veterans about medical benefits and problems getting assistance from the VA.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Some Tri-City area veterans are concerned about recent changes in their services to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, though new programs are being added to assist them.

They're not happy that Roberto Valdez, a Kennewick psychotherapist, recently lost his contract for providing services to those with post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions as part of a reorganization by the Walla Walla Vet Center. His office had been the only one providing such services in the area.

The move has upset some Tri-City veterans because Valdez said he had to drop a large number of his patients.

But the vet center's director say all veterans can still find treatment in the area and that misinformation is being given to the veterans. The center's director also says Valdez and the veterans were given plenty of notice about the restructuring.

Contractor cuts

The PTSD group meets twice monthly at the senior center in Kennewick. It is largely a place where Vietnam vets can share stories or help each other with advice on their benefits. But the veterans also have group and individual therapy sessions with Valdez at his office.

But Valdez's federal contract was terminated Sept. 30 by the vet center. The center is now providing readjustment services to veterans at a facility in Pasco, as well as Walla Walla.

The center is PAID FOR by the Department of Veterans Affairs and isn't part of the Walla Walla VA Medical Center.

Valdez said his office still serves 90 veterans because he continues to work under contract with the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs. But the number of veterans his firm provided one-on-one and group service to has decreased from 150 because two-thirds of his funding is gone, he said.

And the number of veterans continues to rise because more soldiers are returning from fighting in the Middle East, he said. Valdez said the Tri-Cities has at least 20,000 military veterans.

"They've got good people working in the VA," he said. "The issue is that in these communities where we have a booming economy, there are not enough people to meet the needs of the people."

He hopes to get a grant to allow him to expand services by December. He can still take veterans who have their own insurance.

Vet center services

The vet center opened in May 2012, and began using space in the Columbia Basin Veterans Coalition offices to see veterans in the Tri-Cities in November 2012.

Previously, the closest vet center was in Yakima, so contract services were used to allow veterans to see a therapist closer to home.

Dave Beebe, director of the Walla Walla Vet Center, said Valdez, whose office had been the only one contracting with the center in the region, was told a year-and-a-half ago that his three-year contract would not be renewed because the center would begin providing its own services.

Beebe said that should have given Valdez time to refer vets who wouldn't have been able to be covered by the state.

The center provides counseling in Pasco at least three times a week, Beebe said.

"We are building services, and we are seeing vets almost daily," he said. "It's just being done by our direct staff, rather than under contract."

An anonymous 24/7 Vet Center call line also is available for combat veterans. Veterans speak to other combat veterans who can refer them to services at 877-927-8387 (877-WAR-VETS).

Jim Delp, 64, of Kennewick, said veterans have not received the information they were promised about the Pasco center.

Donald R. Smith, who oversees the Denver-based Western Mountain Region for the VA's Readjustment Counseling Service, told Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in an October 2012 letter that vet center counselors would contact each veteran under Valdez's care to review service needs and discuss the feasibility of moving their care.

But that hasn't happened, Delp said. "Not one person's got a letter," he said.

But the VA has tried to reach every veteran that Valdez listed as not being able to take care of under his contract with the state veterans department, Beebe said.

Beebe said claims like that and the one Delp makes that veterans can only speak to people for 15 minutes a month at the vet center, are simply not true.

"It's too bad. I've gone over this with Dr. Valdez. He knows this," Beebe said. "We can see veterans as long as we need to."

Veterans also will not have long waits to see someone at the vet center, Beebe said.

"I don't think a veteran in the Tri-Cities has ever had to wait a week to be seen," he said.

Concerns about new therapists

Going to a new provider can disrupt a "continuum of care," Valdez said.

Veteran Ken Brown, 66, of Kennewick, said he is concerned about seeing different therapists at the vet center.

"It's extremely difficult to build a relationship with somebody you can talk to," he said. "It would be bad enough to see a different medical doctor every time you went in. When you see a different person for mental health each time, you accomplish nothing."

At least one Kennewick veteran credits sessions led by Valdez with saving his life.

Mike Ballard, 68, said he went to a reunion of his 101st Airborne unit from the Vietnam War in 2008 in Ardmore, Okla. He learned while there that two of the men he served with had committed suicide, while three more had died from cancer as a result of Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military.

"I was gonna commit suicide, but then I met that guy over here," Ballard said, pointing to Valdez. "I know I can call him up 24 hours, any time I'm having a meltdown. But the VA, I can only call 9 to 5."

"Or less," added Delp.

The vet center asked Valdez to keep seeing the veterans he had been seeing under his state contract, while sending some of his newer clients to the vet center, Beebe said. He hoped this would minimize any transitions.

The vet center eventually wants to expand into its own building in the Tri-Cities to serve more people, Beebe said.

Hope for the next generation

The group at the recent meeting at the senior center was made up only of Vietnam veterans. But Ernie McColley, 65, of Finley, said it's not themselves they are worried about.

"A lot of us know that our time is short," he said. "What we want to do is set things up so the kids coming back from Afghanistan, Iraq and those types of places don't have to wait 40 years to get help."

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

Services are expanding

The Walla Walla VA Medical Center is expanding its services for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is having an informational meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday at its Richland clinic, 825 Jadwin Ave. Suite 250. Representatives will go over available PTSD services.

"What we've been working toward is really advancing the services we offer our veterans," said psychologist Sarah Oslund, the Walla Walla VA's PTSD coordinator.

Veterans can get information about a 10-week series of classes the VA is offering at all its local clinics to help them deal with different symptoms -- such as anger and sleep disorders -- of PTSD.

"It's trying to really encapsulate all the issues we see in PTSD and how to cope with them," Oslund said.

The classes are open to veterans with PTSD who are enrolled in the Walla Walla VA, regardless of when they served, Oslund said.

Along with the classes, the VA offers different types of individual and group therapy for veterans, much of it available at the Richland clinic, she said.

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