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Witness Testimony of Bill Penn, MD, (Independent Veteran), Baton Rouge, LA

Chairman Filner and members of the Committee, thank you very much for allowing me- an independent veteran- the opportunity to present my views to you on rebuilding our Veterans Hospital. This is an issue that is a personal one for me, and as a veteran, has caused me great concern.

Let me also thank you for holding this hearing.  As members of the Veterans Committee, you have an opportunity to assist the veterans in Louisiana in bringing more awareness to the problems we have faced since Hurricane Katrina.  It is my hope that today’s hearing will highlight the opportunities we have to move forward and help bring the dream of a new veterans’ hospital to reality.

As I mentioned earlier, I come to the Committee today as an independent veteran.  I do not represent a particular organization, though I am a member of many.  What I wish to convey to you is my assessment of the situation in which we find ourselves and the opportunities we have now for moving forward with the VA Hospital.

Hurricane Katrina devastated veterans’ health care in South Louisiana.  I commend the VA for opening additional outpatient clinics.  However, it is necessary that this hospital re-open as soon as possible.

It is my understanding that Congress has already appropriated over $600 million to rebuild the VA Hospital, but the VA has yet to make firm plans for rebuilding this facility.  I ask the committee and audience members to consider today: Why? 

Why, when our veterans need this hospital now, more than ever, as our veterans’ population is aging, and as more men and women are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, why does the VA continue to wait to build this hospital?  Our veterans have sacrificed too much and have given so much for this country for the government to ask us to wait any longer. 

I commend the doctors, nurses, and other staff for operating under the worst of circumstances.  Their efforts and accomplishments in preparing for Hurricane Katrina and their actions in its wake were heroic and are to be commended.  I only ask that those in decision making capacities make decisions and make them swiftly.

Veterans, since Katrina, have been asked to travel hours for some of their health care needs.  For example, veterans needing prosthesis for limb loss are on a waiting list or are transferred to another facility in other states:  4 hrs. to Shreveport, LA.,  2 hrs. to Alexandria, LA., 6 hrs. to Houston, TX., 4 hrs. to Jackson, MS., 8 hrs. to Dallas, TX. 

This VA Hospital must also focus on the needs of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  As a personal example, I went for testing and examinations by a Psychologist to try to help my PTSD, which I have experienced nightly for 54 years.  The treatment for PTSD requires a seven week stay in Little Rock, Arkansas for a program with which I am just becoming familiar.

I give those examples just to illustrate what one goes through and why we need a VA Hospital for South Louisiana as soon as possible, with beds for Psychiatric use, and ample space for veterans, including parking and seating in waiting rooms.

In my estimation, it is unacceptable for the VA to ask our veterans to wait any longer than they have already for this care to be restored in South Louisiana. 

I do not claim to have solutions on where this hospital should be or how big it should be.  I only request that the health care needs of the veterans drive these decisions.  We have an opportunity to show our veterans and our men and women currently serving in uniform that we, as a country, are putting their interests first, and not the interests of other groups.  I urge Secretary Nicholson and the VA to work quickly to restore this very important facility, with the health care needs of our veterans as the focus.  Our veterans deserve no less. When the time came, we served our Country.  Please, now, respect us in our needs today.

Thank you again for allowing me this opportunity.  I will be happy to answer any questions.