By MICHELLE DILLON
Times West Virginian
FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Veterans had a chance to voice their concerns to Congressman David McKinley, R-W.Va., on Tuesday.
McKinley held a roundtable discussion for veterans at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 629 on Fairmont Avenue.
Veterans attended the roundtable to share with McKinley the needs and concerns of veterans.
Veteran James Buchanan spoke on behalf of student veterans. He mentioned issues that student veterans have with the GI Bill.
It takes student veterans a while to get acclimated to school. The students only get 36 months of school paid for by the GI Bill, Buchanan said.
Veterans also have to use their benefits under the GI Bill by a certain time after they are discharged. Some veterans can’t use their benefits right away because of family obligations and other issues. By the time they start school they may not have enough time left from their GI Bill to cover all of it, he said.
McKinley said that the issue with veterans and higher education has come up
before. He worked on a bill last year that made it out of the House but died in the Senate.
The bill would get veterans in school and get them in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The U.S. has only 4 percent of students in higher education in STEM education. If the United States don’t get more people into the STEM fields as a country it will lose our technological edge, he said.
McKinley said he just learned last week that the bill will be introduced during the legislative session in two or three weeks. The bill will give veterans more of a chance to have higher education opportunities, he said.
Veteran Kenny Satterfield spoke about the need for a program to help veterans get acclimated to civilian life. Satterfield said when he served in Operation Desert Storm, he received services like this.
VFW Post 629 service officer George Davis also talked about the issues associated with the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is not just a mental-health issue. It also involves self-destructive behavior like suicide and substance abuse, Davis said.
The Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in Clarksburg and other places hire psychiatrists, but they are not trained in how to treat people with PTSD, he said.
Davis also brought up the need for a change in the way certain compensation programs are administered.
If a family is receiving benefits due to the death of a veteran who died from a disease contracted while serving, the family gets less from different compensation programs. The benefits should be concurrent, Davis said.
Davis also expressed veterans’ concerns about being able to choose where they receive care. Right now under the Choice Act, if a veteran lives within 40 miles of a VA hospital or clinic, the VA will only pay for care at a VA facility, not at a private practice. Sometimes the closest VA facility that offers the care the veteran needs is far away, he said.
Davis said he would like this to be changed.
McKinley is looking into this issue already.
“What we’re trying to find out is, so do veterans have other options?” he said. “I know most of them want to go to the VA, and I’m very supportive of that, like the one we have here in Clarksburg. We think the most important thing is to make sure the veterans are taken care of, that (veterans have) access to good, quality health care.”
“The situation he or she is looking for may not be available in Clarksburg. So we’re trying to find out how we may be able to work it out so that they can go to any facility or at least strike down that 30/40 criteria that we have.
“If you can’t get an appointment within 30 days at the VA or you’re 40 miles from the hospital, under federal law now you can go to some other facility. but there’s gimmicks that have been played in the system where they say, ‘You’re within 40 miles from a clinic, therefore you don’t have the choice.’ That’s not what it was intended to do.”
Veteran Jack Morton spoke about the quality of care that veterans receive at the VA hospital. He said that doctors leave the VA because they are not paid enough.
Morton also brought up the need for a change in the hotline that exists for people who suffer from PTSD. If a veteran is upset and thinking about killing himself or herself, the veteran will not be able to remember a long 800 number.
Morton would like to see the hotline changed to a three-digit number instead. He said that veterans have talked to phone companies and were told the process is simple. They have heard from the Veterans Administration that it would be too expensive to change everything, he said.
McKinley has worked on this issue in the last legislative session, but it was denied, he said.
“Having something like that so a veteran that’s in trouble does not have to try to remember (an 800 number ) …right now, bang, he can hit 623, whatever that number is, something that’s easy to remember, and I think it’s a great idea.”
McKinley wants to try it again now that there is a new administration, he said.
Veteran Joe Hall said that he is concerned with the quality of care veterans receive through the VA. He said the care is getting better, but it is still a main priority.
McKinley had 305 roundtable discussions last year in District 1 while he the Congress was out of session, he said.
“We’ve had phenomenal experiences with (roundtable discussions),” McKinley said. “As a result of those, someone always has a good idea.”
McKinley is concerned with veterans getting access to health care quickly. One of the most important things to help veterans with is PTSD and making sure those with PTSD are properly taken care of, he said.
“We have to remember that our veterans are the ones that put themselves in harm’s way, and we need to do a better job taking care of them,” he said.
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