WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. (AP) – Some had beefs about their medical care. Some came to say how great their doctors and nurses were.

Some wanted an answer about a claim, or to find out what Uncle Sam was doing for homeless veterans. One wanted to know where his military records were.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake got an earful Monday as about 250 people – aging veterans, spouses, VA employees – turned out for the second of two Town Hall-style meetings organized by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. About 175 turned out for an earlier one in South Burlington.

Peake, a West Point graduate and former military surgeon who took the job six months ago, opened the 90-minute meeting at the White River Junction VA Medical Center by telling those gathered for the meeting that his priorities are making the soldier-to-civilian transition a smoother one.

The VA, which employs about 250,000 people and has an annual budget of $80 billion, must improve its “outmoded” system of processing claims and go to a paperless system, he said.

When he opened the room up for a question-and-answer session, no one was shy about calling him on the carpet.

Catherine DeMarco, 54, of Springfield, a U.S. Navy veteran, said her husband – a veteran of Operation Desert Storm – had been declared “persona non grata” at the White River Junction hospital after acting up with a doctor. She wanted to know if he could have a second chance.

“Is it too late to address an issue like that?” she asked. Peake said it wasn’t.

Retired U.S. Air Force flight surgeon Warner Jones asked: “Do you favor giving the Purple Heart to somebody with documented PTSD?” Peake said it was up to the Pentagon to decide, not his department.

Leonard Jerome, 78, of Chester, a former Marine, told Peake the VA had stopped giving him the medication he needed for his diabetes, switching to a generic kind that wasn’t as effective. Peake said that generics are less expensive, but that VA doctors are allowed to demand the pricier alternative when they believe it’s needed.

George Johnson, 52, of Goshen, N.H., a U.S. Air Force veteran, told Peake he’d been mistreated by a “rent-a-doc” at the hospital years ago, forcing emergency surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in nearby Lebanon, N.H. He called some of the doctors and nurses at the hospital “saints,” others “incompetent.”

“I just hope you take care of the guys that are coming back now a lot better,” he said.

In response to another question, Peake said there were plans in the works for a VA clinic in Brattleboro that could be funded by 2010.

Representatives of Sanders took names and information from many of those who had outstanding issues with the VA.

“He was hit with some challenging questions that are very hard for a person in his position to answer,” DeMarco said of Peake, after the meeting broke up. “But the meeting wasn’t even over before someone came over here and took our information.”

For his part, Peake said the grilling was no surprise.

“Medicine is a tough business. When you look across the board, sometimes bad things happen. The real issue with a good organization is if you learn from them, and if you make the corrections systemically, to try to prevent those kinds of things from happening again,” Peake said.


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