VA facility may be on the way

But no plans are in the works yet for Northwest Colorado

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— One can't sit down with a group of Routt County veterans and not hear complaints about the lack of veteran medical care in Northwest Colorado.

Korean War veteran Warren Backes is worried about his 80-year-old brother Chester making a 200-mile trip for a doctor's visit, but he has problems of his own.

"I had a triple bypass," Backes said during a recent interview.

"How can I get to Grand Junction if I have a problem? An ambulance is too expensive. I'd have to drive," he said with disgust.

Now, veterans in Northwest Colorado may have a little glimmer of hope.

Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan returned from a meeting of county leaders last week in Vail and addressed the issue with Richard Ceresko, director of the State Division of Veterans Affairs.

"He said they're (the VA) looking at Northwest Colorado, and the Steamboat hospital would be a practical place to put an outreach facility," said Sullivan.

The Routt County Veterans Affairs officer said his day was made when he got the news from Sullivan.

"We have nothing in this quadrant of Northwest Colorado," said local VA Officer Michael Condie.

"The greatest barrier our vets have is distance. I'm dealing with older guys and it's hard for them to get down to Grand Junction."

Grand Junction and Denver have the nearest VA hospitals.

When contacted about the hopeful news of a nearby VA clinic, the state's VA director downplayed his comments during the Vail convention.

"I'd love to see them get a clinic there (Northwest Colorado), but there are no current plans," said Richard Ceresko, the state VA director who helps send local claims to the federal government.

Ceresko said in the past five years, the VA has put in a number of outpatient clinics or teamed up with existing clinics in other places around the state.

That activity has drained the VA, Ceresko said.

"They expanded so rapidly in the last five years that the enrollment has gone way up 20 percent. They're trying to catch their breath to see if the funding will keep pace."

Both Ceresko and Condie said the increase in the number of veterans going to the VA clinics proves that for years veterans have not been served properly.

"It's when I have older vets who don't go to the hospital in Grand Junction because they can't get a ride there's something wrong with that," Condie said.

Ceresko agreed.

"They're more likely to go somewhere close by than three hours away," he said.

Steamboat Today tried to reach Dr. Terry Vatliner, the regional manager for VA health care in Colorado and nearby states, to ask him about a timeline for a possible VA clinic in Northwest Colorado. He could not be reached by telephone.

Meanwhile, Ceresko said the VA would look at population centers in Northwest Colorado to determine where any clinic would be located.

"Steamboat is an obvious possibility Craig potentially, too," Ceresko said.

"There would have to be a hospital with an emergency room."

Condie said he didn't care where it was, as long as access was easier than driving three or four hours to Denver or Grand Junction.

"Not only is it distance, it's weather," Condie said.

"To get to Denver you have to cross the Continental Divide twice."

Condie said the 2000 Census showed that there were 1,700 veterans living in Routt County.

"There's lots in Moffat, Grand and Jackson, too," he said.

"The county has to pay closer attention to its veterans."

Ceresko said one way to get the VA's attention is to start lobbying the U.S. senators and the local congressman.

"I'd say there's hope for you, but locals need to keep it on the front burner and start talking with federally elected officials," he said.

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