Española veterans plead to keep the local VA clinic

They say child care needs, travel costs and a lack of internet access would become barriers to their health care

By: - March 23, 2022 4:30 am

Bernardo Jaramillo, who has volunteered for decades to drive fellow veterans to and from the VA medical center in Albuquerque, will fully retire April 1. He is shown asking for more support for his organization, Disabled American Veterans, on Tuesday, March 22. 2022. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

ESPAÑOLA—Ben Pearce, a disabled veteran living in Española, said he feels blessed to have people in his life who help him figure out all the logistics of getting medical care.

If a plan by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs goes through, he and his fellow veterans in rural parts of New Mexico will need more than blessings — and even more help from friends and family — to get the care they need.

For example, just on Friday, Pearce needed to get to an appointment at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, he said.

It’s the only VA facility in New Mexico where more serious conditions can be treated, and it’s nearly 93 miles one way from this smaller northern city of about 10,000 people.

Pearce has five children, aged 2- to 12-years-old. Seeing a VA doctor in the metro area means finding child care for all of them.

“Having so many kids, taking them into the VA hospital isn’t an option,” Pearce said.

Ben Pearce (left) listens to Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez speak on Tuesday. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

To get to the one-hour visit with a doctor in Albuquerque, Pearce said he had to find three babysitters, and call on the help of a family member, a friend and one of his kids’ after-school programs to make it happen.

These kinds of “daylong fiascos,” as Pearce puts it, could become the status quo for him and others across western and northern parts of the state who rely on community clinics. 

Four in New Mexico could be shuttered under recommendations released a week ago by the federal Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission: Gallup, Las Vegas, Raton and Española.

Senators oppose plan to close four VA clinics

All four of those clinics are inside the district of Democratic U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez.

When the VA plan came out March 14, she wrote to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, saying the recommendations are “ill-advised” and pointing out that people served by the clinic in Española would have to drive to one in Santa Fe, an-hour-and-a-half drive round trip.

“It is our nation’s solemn obligation to provide veterans the health care, services and support they have earned,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, these closures would jeopardize that obligation and make it harder for veterans to receive essential health services. The VA should not discriminate against rural veterans.”

Leger Fernandez met Tuesday with veterans in-person inside the American Legion Post 17 building in downtown Española. Numerous veterans and their families pleaded with the congresswoman to do everything she can to not let the clinic close.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez met with veterans Tuesday seeking input on a proposal to close the local VA clinic. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Pearce told Leger Fernandez the local clinic offers him and his family the convenience of treatment nearby.

“I love the clinic here,” Pearce told her.

When he moved back to Española about five years ago, he said one of the first things he did was become a patient at the clinic, because it is so convenient for him. If the VA does close the Española clinic, Pearce would have to go back to Albuquerque and get assigned to a new VA doctor and have to re-establish that relationship.

Pearce said he wouldn’t be as impacted as some of his fellow veterans in Española because his time with the doctor has been short, so finding a new one would not be as much of an ordeal.

But many of the veterans who attended the meeting said Dr. Joseph J. Keel, a VA-contracted doctor who works out of the clinic, is their “personal doctor” and knows exactly the kind of care they need.

Ron Gallegos said veterans in Española don’t want to go to Santa Fe or Taos to get their treatment.

“We are not asking for much,” he said. “We want a place to call home. We’re going to be feeling like orphans, going somewhere else.”

Chris Archuleta said the local clinic is vital for the people living in the rural areas in and around Española. Around 40,000 reside throughout the valley.

Archuleta has his own issues with the clinic in Taos, he said, and rising fuel costs make it infeasible to travel to the one in Santa Fe.

Congress is quick to send us to war. But when it comes to health care, the government is lacking severely in this area.

– Chris Archuleta

Pearce works with the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter here and the local commission that oversees the Veterans’ Memorial wall on the Plaza de Española. He was one of the younger veterans in the hall. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of a field artillery team in the U.S. Army, based out of Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

The older veterans, Pearce said, face severe limitations just getting down to Albuquerque.

“A lot of ’em are aging out of driving, and they have a spouse or a son, daughter, somebody that they care for most of the time as well,” Pearce said. “It’s what you do up here.”

For them to have to go to Albuquerque, Pearce said, would probably entail a lot more hardship because they would need to find someone to care for their spouses while they’re gone.

Telehealth is one solution for health care often suggested to people living in more rural parts of the state. Archuleta pointed out many older veterans do not know how to use computers and need to be seen by a doctor in person. He said there’s also a lack of good Internet service in remote areas.

Pearce agreed, saying the Española area does not have the infrastructure to modernize and do telehealth for aging veterans.

“It’s the same issues we faced when schools closed down and when COVID started: kids couldn’t get the internet to get to school,” he said. “It’s gonna be elderly people not being able to use the Internet to get to their doctor.”

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez and staff met with veterans inside the inside the American Legion Post 17 building in downtown Española. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.