Gabbard hears about medical issues veterans in county facing

WAIKAPU – About 100 veterans and residents told new U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on Wednesday about the difficulties of receiving medical attention and the “revolving-door process” for veterans being treated by doctors and nurses.

“We’ve been told more than once that . . . you can’t expect people to be here more than two or three years,” said Mitch Skaggerberg, referring to staff at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Clinic in Honolulu.

Addressing Gabbard, he said: “We would like you to work with (the Department of Veteran Affairs) and say, we can have permanent staff here . . . where (health providers) will stay four, five, six years.”

The Maui Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, founded in 1988, has had ongoing difficulties with retaining doctors and serving the more than 11,000 veterans in Maui County. Skaggerberg, a member of the Maui County Veterans Council, held meetings in January 2012 and said some veterans waited months before they could get an appointment with a doctor.

Gabbard said the issue of retaining doctors on Maui is a major concern.

“We want to make sure that we keep our providers here,” she said Wednesday during an event with veterans at the Maui Tropical Plantation. “Make it so that people want to stay, so that you’re not having veterans developing a rapport with a provider and then having them leave and start all over again.”

Bratton Helekahi, who was receiving treatment at the clinic Wednesday, said he was disgruntled over the constant changes in doctors.

“I’m on my fifth doctor in five years,” said the 61-year-old Vietnam veteran from Hana.

Aside from treatment, transportation costs have remained a chief concern for veterans.

Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 due to Agent Orange exposure, Helekahi travels from his Hana home to the Kahului clinic once a month to receive treatment but said he sometimes cannot make the trip because he lacks gas money.

Gabbard visited the clinic last month and said travel costs are a big issue for residents living in rural areas such as Molokai and Lanai. She added that she is working to provide better health care access for veterans.

One of the services discussed at the event is a toll-free call center for veterans. The Veterans Affairs Pacific Islands Health Care System allows veterans to speak with officials concerning medical advice, questions about medication and scheduling nonurgent appointments.

However, members of the council would like to see a complex built that could serve as a “one-stop shop” for veterans needs.

The proposed 4.3-acre complex would be located on the southwest corner of the Maui High School campus and would provide medical service for veterans, as well as a space for support groups.

Chelsea Fernandez is the Maui representative for the Hawaii Office of Veterans Services, and former Maui High School Principal Randy Yamanuha have been supporters for the complex, which would allow students to learn about the field of medicine.

Veterans council President Paul Laub said the complex is a necessity, especially for the older veterans.

“It’s just so hard for them to get around,” he said. The clinic, located on Hoohana Street, has only 17 parking stalls and two reserved disabled-access spots. Laub said the clinic is always busy, and veterans have to find street parking once the lot is full.

“It’s ideal if they can get everything there,” he said.

In April, Craig Oswald, strategic planner with the veterans agency, discovered that the clinic does not meet federal seismic structural requirements and must move from its leased building. There is no deadline for the move, and agency officials could not immediately respond about the future of the clinic.

Gabbard said there is no timeline for the proposed veterans complex, but she is working with the veterans council.

“They’re my family, so I’m very passionate to make sure our veterans are recognized for their service they’ve provided and continue to provide . . . and make sure they’re getting the benefit and respect that each and every one of our veterans has earned,” she said.

Aside from being a member of Congress, Gabbard is the Military Police Company commander with the Hawaii Army National Guard. She served two deployments to the Middle East.

“This is something that is going to take county, state and federal to really come together and make happen,” she said, referring to the veterans complex.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at