Driving VA health-care solutions in Albuquerque

Understanding and working to solve the challenges of New Mexico’s sprawling VA Health Care System was the prime focus during The American Legion’s System Worth Saving (SWS) visit during the week of June 24.

New Mexico has one VA medical center, located in Albuquerque, and 13 CBOCs spread around the state’s 121,000 square miles. The Albuquerque VA provides care for 98,000 veterans, many of whom travel several hours for appointments, surgeries and other health-care needs.

The SWS visit began with a town hall, held at American Legion Post 13, which was attended by about 40 veterans, local VA staff, lawmaker representatives and others. Veterans expressed support for the Albuquerque VA while posing questions about issues related to CBOCs, the impact of the PACT Act, geriatric care, transportation concerns and the continuity of care.

“We give veterans a voice in their health care, create an environment where they can speak freely about concerns, problems, and hopefully have them addressed either on the spot or at least bring them to the attention of those who can help,” said town hall moderator Alan Cohen, vice chairman of The American Legion’s national Veterans and Rehabilitation Commission. “At the end of the day, everybody wants to be in the position where they can provide the best health care possible for the veterans in our community.”

The Albuquerque visit followed others in Tampa, Fla., and Phoenix earlier this year. More are planned for the second half of 2024, continuing the program that has been ongoing for more than 20 years with no end in sight.

“This is a System Worth Saving, no doubt about it,” Cohen said.

Paul Espinoza, commander of Post 13, was honored to host the town hall.

“It’s very important to our post and important to our community to have System Worth Saving here to look at the issues we have,” he said. “It’s about helping our veterans throughout New Mexico, helping out those who use the CBOCs, helping out with community care.”

Espinoza credited Donald “Butch” Harrison, an Air Force veteran who has been a mainstay in advocating for veterans at the Albuquerque VA for years. He is a liaison, coordinating needs veterans have with the services available at the VA.

“This is the best job in the Legion because you have the opportunity to help people,” said Harrison, a member of Post 95 in Albuquerque. “And when you can see you are people helping, it’s a beautiful thing. That’s why I’ve stayed in this position for so long.”

It’s impossible to determine how many lives Harrison has improved through his tireless volunteer work.

“What does success look like to me?” he repeats the question. “You know what success looks like to me? It’s when they say thank you. That’s success.”

While volunteers like Harrison are the boots on the ground that are instrumental in the Legion-VA partnership at the local level, the SWS visits illustrate how the organizations work together to improve the care for all the nation’s veterans.

After these visits, American Legion staff prepares a report that is shared with VA staff, members of Congress and the public. “These reports detail our findings. We take all these reports, best practices, things that are or are not working, and take these to Congress and say, ‘This is what we are running up against.’”

It’s a labor of love for Cohen, who became a service officer after his first experience as a beneficiary. About 15 years ago, he needed VA health care and ended up having major surgery. An American Legion service officer met Cohen in the hospital, helped him file the paperwork and secured benefits compensation that surprised — and motivated — Cohen.

“Is this a joke,” Cohen asked the service officer. “I thought, ‘there must be thousands of veterans like me.’ That’s not even close. There are millions. And right there, I knew this is what I needed to do. Millions of veterans need people like me advocating for them. This gets me up and moving every single day.”

 


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