CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst got an earful from Iowa’s veterans about their problems with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

More than 50 people traveled from across the region to a veterans roundtable Ernst held Tuesday at the University of Northern Iowa campus. Their frustrations ranged from wait times to problems with using the Veterans Choice Program to their treatment at the Iowa City VA hospital.

But for many, their problems could be summed up in just one sentence.

“We’ve got to get back to the old way where the VA was started to take care of us, to take care of the widows and the orphans, and we’ve forgotten that, and until that changes, we can have these (forums) every day,” Black Hawk County VA Director Kevin Dill said.

Dill joined Lyman Campbell, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Waverly, in expressing a frustration about seeing a new doctor each time they visit the VA to see a specialist. Dill explained how a new doctor comes up with a new diagnosis or enters something wrong into the patient’s record.

Each time that happens, Dill said, it “bogs down the system.”

Donald Shellenberger, with Waterloo’s AMVETS organization, added that he would like to see specialists travel to regions occasionally rather than have veterans regularly travel hundreds of miles round trip to access care in Iowa City.

The issue of veterans mental health did not come up during the forum, but Ernst, R-Iowa, made clear during a brief news conference that she is continuing to push for answers to better address mental health care through the VA.

Ernst’s advocacy has come to light especially after the death by suicide last month of U.S. Marine Corps veteran Brandon Ketchum of Davenport, who had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Nothing will ever bring him (Ketchum) back, but what we need to do is look forward and find a way to correct this epidemic,” Ernst said of the estimated 20 veterans who die by suicide each day.

Veterans at Tuesday’s forum, however, were focused on frustrations with the top levels at the VA administration, both here and nationally, as well as their ability to access care through the system in Iowa City.

“We have some of the very finest receptionists and lower-level people in the system in Iowa City and this area up here; the administrators above them, to my way of thinking are the problem,” Shellenberger said.

Ernst said she sees those problems as starting at the top of the VA with its head, Secretary Robert McDonald.

Although McDonald was confirmed before Ernst was elected to the U.S. Senate, Ernst said her initial impression of him was that he would be a “go-getter” and someone who would change the system. But since then, she said, she’s seen little follow through and now advocates for his removal.

“They have forgotten that the VA exists for the veterans, so we need someone that truly believes that, and we’ll make sure that the best interests of the veterans are taken to heart,” Ernst said of a possible replacement to McDonald in the next administration.

Most veterans focused on frustrations, none of which Ernst said she was surprised to hear after holding similar forums across Iowa. But Ernst said part of the reason for holding the discussions is to invite examples of success or proposed solutions.

Cory Champagne, a U.S. Navy veteran, voiced concerns, but he also offered the few positive comments on the VA system.

Champagne moved to Waterloo from the Baltimore, Maryland, region last April, and he said the system here is much improved from his dealings with the VA in Maryland.

“I want to comment and praise the way things are done differently here than in Maryland,” Champagne said. “It’s night and day in terms of how fast you can get things done there and that you can get things done here.”

He also proposed one solution to the lack of providers in the VA system, as well as a way to employ veterans, by following Virginia’s lead in certifying veterans with medical backgrounds in the service so they can be more easily employed at hospitals and clinics after they leave the service.

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