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Dick Taylor

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is composed of three main elements: the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery Administration. The VHA handles medical centers, medical outpatient clinics and vet centers. The VBA handles claims for pension and monetary compensation for veterans. The NCA handles all of the national cemeteries, as well as burial benefits.

The VA is doing some things right. The VA facilities in and around Bakersfield are doing a lot of things right. Other than a high turnover of directors and interim directors, the Bakersfield National Cemetery serves our veterans well. It sits on 500 acres of land generously donated by Tejon Ranch; its first interment was in 2009.

The Bakersfield Vet Center, which opened around 2011, offers readjustment counseling for combat veterans. It does an exemplary job for our veterans, offering an impressive range of counseling services, as well as a mobile outreach van which travels throughout our county, and all with staff who care about the veterans they serve, but they appear to be understaffed and underfunded. Established in 1944, the Kern County Veterans Service Department, although operated by the county and not the VA, contracts with VBA to offer assistance in filing claims for compensation and pension, as well as help getting a “veteran” designation on driver’s licenses, and it produces County Veterans I.D. cards.

In a private/public collaboration with Chevron, the Kern Patriot Partnership provides employment services. Again, great, caring staff.

The Bakersfield VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic opened in the mid-1980s, does a great job and many veterans are pleased with the services they offer including medical and mental health care. The doctors, nurses and staff there are well-qualified. They offer a range of medical services with providers and have expanded their Telehealth program in an effort to provide veterans with access to several medical specialties.

The CBOC, too, seems to be understaffed. Round-trip bus service is available for veterans from the Bakersfield CBOC to VA medical facility locations in west Los Angeles and Sepulveda. Both of these locations in the L.A. area offer a wider range of medical services than the Bakersfield CBOC does.

Some things need improvement in the VA. Some think the system should be expanded to include a new VA hospital in Bakersfield. Some feel the entire VA health care system should be dumped and privatized. Others think there are some really good things with many VA health care facilities and a hybrid of VA and private providers would work.

The VA has made headway nationally in reducing the time to process most compensation claims. It introduced the Veterans Choice Program, which was designed to allow veterans to get health care locally from private providers approved by the VA. Its two main criteria : If the VA cannot make an appointment within 30 days, or if a veteran lives more that 40 travel miles away, they can use the program. In theory it should work well, but in practice, it has failed. Some in the past at the highest levels of the VA simply don’t want Veterans Choice to be successful.

It should be easier for veterans undergoing treatment for medical conditions needing a higher echelon of care, such as cardiac problems or cancer, to see private providers close to home and not have to travel all the way to L.A. And paying these private providers should be more consistent. Many providers nationally have left the program because of VA’s $50 million payment backlog. If these problems were fixed, it could work very well.

To summarize, Kern County veterans need a new VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic. The veterans’ community has waited through the last five VA secretaries and the last three presidential administrations for a new CBOC. The current location has long exceeded its design life and several plans to build a new one have made their way through the bureaucratic process, only to be scrapped.

Kern County veterans also need better access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment. The Department of Defense needs to improve the way it helps members of the Armed Forces who are transitioning from active duty to veteran status. The DOD needs to do a better job of preparing, counseling and treating those getting out of the service before they simply dump them into the VA system.

Dick Taylor is county veterans service officer at the Kern County Veterans Service Department.