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San Diego's Veterans Affairs Director Stepping Down

Jeff_Gering.jpg
San Diego VA Director Resigns
San Diego's Veterans Affairs Director Stepping Down
The local head of the Department of Veterans Affairs is expressing frustration over its slow pace as he leaves for a job at a nonprofit.

The head of the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego is stepping down this week. He leaves a local system that largely avoided the scandals involving long wait times that rocked the VA system nationally.

Even so, as he moves on, Jeff Gering still worries about the VA’s ability to cope with the future.

Gering came to San Diego in 2012, after a long career with the VA. San Diego has a reputation as one of the best VA systems in the country.

“I think the support I’ve had here has been incredible," he said. "That’s not the norm nationally. So locally, I think we’re thriving in many ways. Nationally I think the VA is struggling in some respects.”

The VA in San Diego didn’t struggle as much with the long wait times that led to Congress passing a series of reforms in 2014.

But the local VA did not keep out of the headlines entirely. When Gering first arrived from the Midwest, the VA was already planning a new clinic in Old Town dedicated to treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

San Diego has one of the highest percentages of Iraq and Afghan veterans in the country. The VA estimates that one in five veterans have PTSD. A clinic that would provide intense treatment seems like a natural fit. But back in 2012, the school across the street didn’t agree. They went to the City Council and objected.

“But I think what really changed things is we worked with the school," Gering said. "We heard from the parents. We heard from the school, their concerns. We developed an MOU that addressed their concerns with sufficient onsite security, and who would be allowed, mission criteria.”

“He was looking for a way to solve the problem,” said Phil Landis, CEO of Veterans Village.

Landis said Gering asked to meet with him about the Aspire Center in his first week after he took the job.

“Most of this was about communication and that wasn’t being done too well," Landis said. "So he went to work being a community. And it took him a long time, but at the end of the day, look what we have here.”

After the City Council vote, controversy over the Aspire Center faded from the headlines.

Other building projects are in the pipeline. Still, Gering is leaving the San Diego VA after less than three years to take a job at the nonprofit Family Health Centers of San Diego. He admits he’s frustrated that the VA doesn’t adapt quickly.

“We heard today that we’re averaging 72 new patients a week coming here for mental healthcare," Gering said. "New. We know some people are coming from outside the area to San Diego. Actually some coming here because of the VA. And we have a strong reputation in mental healthcare but it’s taxing our system.”

The budget hasn’t matched the 10 percent increase in mental health clients San Diego has seen in the last year. And building projects like Aspire just take too long. The San Diego VA was able to get two expansions in the VA Reform Law of 2014, including an acute care center in Chula Vista. Over the summer, the current clinic actually lost its lease and narrowly avoided shutting down, while the new building made its way through the lengthy approval process.

Family Health Centers of San Diego is thriving and growing quickly," Gering said. "They’re able to set up clinics very quickly to meet the needs of growing San Diegans that are looking for their services, so they are a much more nimble organization.

"I think if you’re passionate, and you really care about a population you’ve been entrusted to provide the best care possible to, they have the need. We need the space. That’s on me, but I don’t control everything. Obviously, I have to work with Washington,” he said.

Gering is frank about the shortcomings he’s seen at the VA, though he’s more reluctant to diagnose the future. The local VA is struggling to hire enough psychiatrists to handle the influx of mental health patients. It’s part of a nationwide problem.

Congress will have to decide whether to shift resources away from the Northeast, which is seeing fewer veterans, to places like San Diego, where the veteran population is still growing.

But, after 22 years with the VA, those choices will come on someone else’s watch.