WILTON — Lack of transportation, medical care and jobs are among the major issues facing veterans, according to Saratoga County officials who see them on a daily basis.
About 30 people attended a veterans roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, at SUNY Adirondack’s Wilton campus on Tuesday afternoon.
Stefanik highlighted some recent work she has done on veterans issues.
She toured the Veterans House in Ballston Spa as well as the Guardian House, which is for female veterans and is one of fewer than a dozen programs in the country.
In this past year, she said she has helped veterans obtain about $470,000 to which they were entitled.
Frank McClement, director of the Saratoga County Veterans Service Agency, said lack of transportation is a major issue. His office has one van and a lot of ground to cover in the county. These veterans end up having to spend all day at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center.
He said he wished there were health care options closer to home, and he suggested contacting adult day services or programs in local communities.
“You might see an increased participation and you might even see lower costs in transportation in getting people there,” he said.
McClement pointed out that veterans are getting older, with the average age in Saratoga County being 51 years old.
Cheryl Hage-Perez, executive director of Saratoga County Rural Preservation Co., which also helps veterans, said access to health care is sorely needed.
“I think the title Veterans Choice Health Care Act is very misleading,” she said. “Our veterans do not have a choice.”
Under the new legislation passed in Congress last year, in order to receive services at locations other than the VA, a veteran has to live at least 40 miles from the closest VA hospital, and there is a wait of more than 30 days.
She said veterans may want to see the provider they have been going to for many years.
Hage-Perez also cited the bureaucracy in trying to get services covered. In one instance, a female veteran had broken her leg. She was taken to the nearest available hospital, Saratoga Hospital, and got a bill for over $5,000. The VA denied her claim. Then the woman received a threatening letter saying she was going to have a bad mark on her credit.
“It was much quicker to take her to Saratoga Hospital than all the way down to the VA and she was stuck with that bill,” she said.
The woman received money from the American Legion and other donors to pay the bill, according to Hage-Perez.
McClement agreed there can be too much red tape.
“A broken arm isn’t considered to be life-threatening,” he said.
McClement said the VA will not cover emergent care unless the agency is notified upon the person’s admittance to the emergency room, and it will not cover the costs past the point at which the veteran is stabilized.
He cited a hypothetical example of a veteran having a stroke. The wife and family may not have the presence of mind to make a phone call to the VA to inform them of the situation.
Then, the bills have to be submitted promptly.
“They have to get those within 90 days or they won’t cover them at all,” he said.
This process needs to be streamlined, McClement added.
Stefanik said the Veterans Choice Health Care Act has been much more bureaucratic in its implementation than was the intent.
“These issues are unacceptable,” he said.
She said she would take this information back to Congress to reform the program to allow more flexibility in terms of the medical providers veterans can see. One change she suggested is if people live outside that 40-mile area from the VA hospital, perhaps they should be allowed to skip the initial VA visit when they are applying for services and be automatically referred if they have demonstrated a need.
Other topics that came up during the discussion were veterans’ mental health issues and job opportunities.
Hage-Perez said veterans have skills such as leadership and organization that they may not know how to highlight on a resume or in an application.
“I’m organized. I’m reliable. I’m dependable,” she said.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said he has tried to work on legislation to give credits for veteran-owned businesses, similar to how there are requirements to use minority- and women-owned businesses. He has had some success but would like to expand it, he said.
Before the event, Stefanik touched on health care and immigration during a media availability.
Stefanik said when it returns from recess, Congress should focus on “quick fixes” such as a repeal on the medical device tax. She does not support a rollback of the Medicaid expansion.
She also met with the Rev. Thomas Babiuch, pastor of St. Mary’s/St. Paul’s in Hudson Falls, who had expressed his concern with raids that have rounded up local undocumented workers and resulted in the closing of the local El Mexicano restaurant.
She said she has supported expansion of visa programs and understands the importance of these workers to the local agricultural economy. She said she would continue to be an advocate to fix the immigration system and alleviate the backlog of processing visas.
Stefanik also said federal aid may be necessary to fight ground-based invasive species such as the hemlock woolly adelgid.