In a press conference today at the Veterans Affair Community Clinic in White Plains, Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-Westchester/Rockland) and local veterans called for improved care for our nation's veterans. Lowey highlighted the ongoing claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that has resulted in 600,000 veterans waiting 125 days or more for medical claims to be processed; the need for specialized treatment for female veterans; and gaps in mental health services.
"Too many of our veterans are not receiving the care and benefits they deserve. We can and must do better for the men and women who have bravely served our country," said Congresswoman Lowey. "I am particularly concerned about the delay veterans face in receiving their hard-earned benefits due to the backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the barriers facing veterans who struggle with mental illness as a result of their service. More specialized VA care for women, who are the fastest-growing sub-population in our military, is also critical."
Lowey supports the bipartisan Veterans Mental Health Accessibility Act. Up to 22 veterans commit suicide every day and up to 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan vets have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Under the current system, veterans have a five-year window in which they must seek treatment for mental illnesses before losing their higher priority status. The legislation would eliminate the five-year window and allow veterans to seek treatment for service-connected mental illnesses, regardless of when their conditions or symptoms manifest themselves.
"We hear about how difficult it was for veterans after Vietnam. But in terms of employment, today veterans have it worse. The VA's care is well done, but accessing it can be a nightmare and the backlog has quadrupled in four years. Navigating that system is like putting socks on an octopus," said Jerry Donnellan, Director of the Rockland County Veterans Service Agency.
"Everyone should have the dignity that comes with being a fully engaged, and fully employed, member of society, but our veterans and their families who have given our country so much deserve nothing less," said Duane Jackson, Village of Buchanan Trustee and President of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Buchanan Chapter. "We need to get our newest veterans jobs and we need to do it now. It's the right thing to do."
"As a physician who served in Iraq, a combat veteran, and one who suffers from PTSD, I am intimately aware of the need for more resources dedicated to assist veterans to heal and live in the civilian sector. Not only do I have to live with PTSD, a direct result of my military service, but I must also struggle with the current system of care to have its symptoms treated. There are simply not enough resources available to veterans living with PTSD to live well with PTSD," said Heather Cereste, M.D., a veteran from Armonk.
"Many thanks to Congresswoman Nita Lowey and her constant efforts to support America's veterans," said Ken Kraetzer, a local veteran and host of local radio show focused on veterans issues. "We are all concerned with the issues related to the backlog of claims facing the VA. We understand the VA has faced substantially increased requests for care in recent years from veterans returning from recent conflicts as well as those suffering illnesses from past conflicts such as older veterans dealing with effects of Agent Orange and other diseases associated with service in Vietnam."
In a recent Appropriations Committee hearing, Congresswoman Lowey expressed her concern about the state of care for our nation's veterans to Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). She highlighted the claims backlog, which the Congress helped to address with inclusion of funds for roughly 200 additional VA case managers to be hired in fiscal year 2013. While still more personnel is needed to expedite claims, the VA and the Department of Defense must better coordinate on the transfer of veterans' medical records. Video of the Congresswoman's remarks in the hearing can be viewed here.
Lowey also called for the VA to focus on providing specialized treatment for female veterans' unique health care needs. Women now make up more than 14% of the country's active-duty soldiers, the fastest-growing subpopulation in the U.S. military. Women are enrolling for health care from the VA at record levels, including 80,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers of female veterans are expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.
To address the harsh economic realities facing too many American veterans, Congresswoman Lowey is a member of the newly-formed Veterans Jobs Caucus, a bipartisan group committed to helping address joblessness among the country's former service members. In addition, she supported the largest increase in funding for veterans in history, and co-sponsored and voted for the expansion of the G.I. Bill to help more troops afford a college education when they return home. She was also an early supporter of the Wounded Warriors Assistance Project, which was subsequently signed into law. Lowey has also cosponsored legislation allowing those entitled to the Survivor Benefit Plan to receive full Survivor benefits and allowing the receipt of both military retired pay and veterans' disability compensation for any service-connected disability.