James Thompson confronts Rep. Ron Estes at Estes’ town hall

Rep. Ron Estes emphasizes a point during his Town Hall.
Rep. Ron Estes emphasizes a point during his Town Hall. The Wichita Eagle

Rep. Ron Estes and Democratic challenger James Thompson traded fire Saturday when Thompson showed up at Estes’ sparsely attended Town Hall on veterans issues.

Thompson challenged Estes to debate him in all 17 counties that make up the 4th Congressional District.

“You’re a hard man to find,” Thompson said, speaking from the back of the nearly-empty meeting room at the Wichita’s Advance Learning Library.

“Hopefully you’re aware that 22 veterans a day are dying (of suicide),” Thompson told Estes. “Will you agree to have 17 debates around the district so we can have a discussion of that issue so that everybody can hear it, and we can get more veterans out than just the five people that are here?”

Democratic congressional candidate James Thompson, right, stands in the back of the room at opponent Ron Estes’ Town Hall, waiting to challenge Estes to debate him in all 17 counties of the 4th District. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

Thompson stood at the back of the room through most of Estes’ hourlong meeting and Estes accused Thompson of a campaign stunt.

“So this is your gimmick, to come here and ask a question (about debates) when we want to talk about serious issues here?” Estes said. “We’re having a series of debates as you know.”

“I apologize for his interruption here,” Estes told the audience.

Estes and Thompson are currently scheduled to have two debates between now and the Nov. 6 election: one in Pratt and another on KPTS public television in Wichita.

Estes’ forum Saturday wasn’t widely promoted outside of veterans’ groups. Attendance was nine members of the general public, including an insurance agent who sells policies to veterans and her young son.

They were outnumbered by the combination of Estes’ staff, six, and Thompson and his supporters, four.

Most of the discussion from the veterans centered on complaints of inefficiency in the Veterans Affairs health system.

One problem that emerged involved complaints about the online system for filing for veterans health benefits.

James Denison, who is active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, recounted a story about a man he tried to help who started his application online and then tried to finish it in person.

He said they were told that once the application process was started through the Web site, it had to be completed there, even though the man had brought all the documentation necessary to establish his eligibility.

He said a VA worker told him, “We don’t recommend people go online to get enrolled within the VA.”

Estes said that was unacceptable and he’ll work to fix it.

“The system needs to work and if not, workers need to follow up” to ensure eligible veterans are getting the services they’re supposed to, he said.

The veterans at the meeting and Estes gave high marks to the care received at Wichita’s Bob Dole VA hospital. Most of the complaints had more to do with the bureaucracy and appeal process in the overall system that’s run at the national level.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas