The VA center in Portland
The VA center in Portland is located next to Oregon Health & Science University. (Photo by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)

Oregon veterans would get better and in some cases faster medical care under a restructuring proposed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Released Monday, the plan would modernize health care facilities in Oregon and southwest Washington, add services at some locations, create two new clinics and shorten the time veterans in rural areas spend commuting for services.

The recommendations from the VA go to the Asset and Infrastructure Commission, an independent group whose members were recently appointed by President Joe Biden. They need to be confirmed by the Senate. The commission will conduct public hearings on the recommendations and then will send its own proposals to the Biden administration next year. Modernization plans have to be approved by Congress and the Biden administration, and Congress has to appropriate funds. For Oregon and southwest Washington, the modernization would cost $3.5 billion but lead to lower operating costs over the long term, the report said.

“Many of the potential changes to VA’s health care infrastructure may be several years away and are dependent on the commission, presidential and congressional decisions, as well as robust stakeholder engagement and planning,” Daniel Herrigstad, head of communications for the VA Portland Health Care System, cautioned in a statement to the Capital Chronicle.

The plan was welcomed by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who said it will better serve women veterans in Oregon and those who are older or live in rural areas while protecting the safety of veterans and staff. 

“Veterans deserve top-notch services and facilities when they return home to civilian life in our state,” Wyden said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle. “I’ll continue to watchdog the VA to make sure these changes deliver on the promise to fully support our nation’s commitment to veterans.”

Most of the veterans in Oregon are in the federal agency’s South Cascades Market region, which includes southwest Washington and stretches to the California border. The area serves more than 150,000 veterans, but two-thirds live in an area spanning the north Oregon coast to Bend, including Portland.

Veterans now get care at medical facilities in Portland, Vancouver, Roseburg and White City, east of Medford. The Portland and Vancouver facilities are the largest campuses. 

There’s a health care center in Eugene and outpatient clinics in The Dalles, Bend, Klamath Falls, Grants Pass, Brookings, North Bend, Salem, Newport, Lincoln City, West Linn, Fairview, Hillsboro and Warrenton. 

Veterans in eastern Oregon have access to an outpatient clinic in Hines, next to Burns, while those in northeastern Oregon, can obtain outpatient services at a clinic in La Grande.

The VA expects the number of veterans served in the region to drop by 2.5% in seven years. It expects the demand for physical health care to increase by 6.5%, along with a slight increase in the demand for mental health care. 

As the population ages, the plan projects the demand for long-term care services to jump by one-third. The VA offers nursing home care and assisted living services along with in-home care.

An expansion of services

The plan calls for expanding services in the Portland area, Eugene and White City while adding some services in Roseburg. The plan also proposes new outpatient clinics in Longview, Washington, and Albany.

“The strategy for the market is intended to provide veterans today and in the future with access to high-quality, conveniently located care in modern infrastructure,” the plan said. Changes proposed in the Portland area include seismic upgrades to the VA facility in southwest Portland, located next to Oregon Health & Science University. The facility, which offers inpatient medical and surgical care, inpatient mental health care and outpatient services, was built in 1988 on 29 acres. The VA estimates that it will cost $167 million to address deficiencies, the report said. 

The Vancouver facility, which offers inpatient rehabilitation, a community center and outpatient services, was built in 1992 on 52 acres. It has $32 million in “deficiencies,” the report said.

The plan calls for adding urgent care and more specialty services in Vancouver. It also proposes a new women’s health clinic. Other area proposals include:

  • Adding audiology and podiatry services at the Fairview outpatient clinic.
  • Adding podiatry at the Hillsboro clinic.
  • Relocating the West Linn clinic to a larger facility, enabling the VA to expand primary care and outpatient mental health services and add specialty care services.
  • Adding podiatry services to the Bend clinic.

The Roseburg facility, which offers inpatient mental health care, inpatient rehabilitation services, a community center and outpatient services, is the oldest in Oregon. It was built in 1933 on 124 acres. The VA reported it needs $167 million in upgrades.

Under the plan, the Roseburg facility would continue to offer inpatient mental health treatment and would get a geriatric team of clinicians but outpatient surgery, inpatient rehabilitation and specialty care would be discontinued. The Roseburg facility serves about 9,000 veterans.

“The facility is oversized for its workload and experiences challenges with recruitment and retention across clinical services,” the report said. 

Specialty care services and outpatient surgery would be transferred to Eugene, and inpatient rehab would move to White City.

The White City facility was built in 1942 on 145 acres. It serves more than 14,000 veterans with inpatient rehabilitation and outpatient services. Under the plan, it would add geriatric services. 

The Eugene health care center, which would take over from Roseburg as the area’s outpatient specialty hub, serves nearly 22,000 veterans.

Reassigning rural veterans

The plan calls for realigning facilities in the network so that veterans in certain areas don’t have to drive so far for specialized treatment. The Bend outpatient clinic, which is connected to Portland, would be aligned with the Eugene clinic. The report said that would shave 40 minutes off the drive of veterans seeking specialty treatment. They now have to drive to Portland – a 190-minute trip. That compares with a drive of 150 minutes to Eugene, the report said. Other changes include:

  • Realign the Brookings clinic from Roseburg to White City.
  • Transfer veterans in Curry County from Roseburg to White City.

Veterans now in Curry County go to Roseburg for outpatient services. The White City facility is 30 minutes closer, the report said.

  • Treat veterans Benton, Linn, Deschutes, Jefferson, Wheeler and Crook counties in Eugene instead of Portland.

“Enrollees in all of these counties have significantly longer drive times to the Portland (facility) compared to the Eugene (health care center) for outpatient specialty care,” the report said. The realignment will “improve geographic access and reduce drive times for veterans.”

The plan also calls for increasing the ability of rural veterans to receive complex operations and inpatient care in Portland and for increasing ophthalmology services in the region.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.