Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Gary I. Laweryson, USMC (Ret.), Commander, Military Order of the Purple Heart, State of Maine, Chairman, Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee, Waldoboro, ME, Judge Advocate, Marine Corps League, State of Maine, and Aide-de-camp to Governor John Baldacci
MAINE VETERANS COORDINATING COMMITTEE
Military Order of the Purple Heart * AMVETS * Marine Corps League *
Disabled American Veterans * Korean War Veterans * WAVES *
Vietnam Veterans of America * Women Veterans of America * 40/8 *
Jewish War Veterans *York County Veterans * Paralyzed Veterans of America *
American Legion Aux *Disabled American Veterans Aux *
Thank you for allowing me to testify on behalf of the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee. Our organization is comprised of the above veterans service organizations and represents a united voice working for all veterans of Maine.
As I testified on August 1,2005, the VA’s Capitol Assets Realignment Enhanced Services (CARES) studied access to Maine’s rural veteran population and concluded more Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOC’s) were needed along Maine’s north-south corridor and western Maine. These CBOC’s would provide Maine’s rural veterans increased access to the VA’s outpatient and specialty cares.
Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) allows the National Guard and Reserve troops to access the VA system for 5 years after return from OIF/OEF. As these current arenas of combat continue, treatment of Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, amputations, multiple injuries and illnesses, as well as, the added numbers of women combat veterans further strains an already challenged VA system, especially in the rural areas. High fuel prices and loss of jobs in the rural areas have impacted the need for increased rural access to the CBOC’s as many of these veterans are now seeking care through the VA for the first time.
CBOC’s within Maine are filled to capacity and need additional space and providers to be able to continue to provide the quality care Maine’s veterans expect and demand.
CARES studies demonstrated Maine is greater in area and veteran population than the entire VISN 1 area. With the new OIF/OEF veterans, Maine’s veteran population has swelled from the projected 154,000 in 2004 to an estimated additional 5000 veterans eligible for care in the VA system.
Communication of the varied VA services available to all Maine veterans is imperative, especially to the OIF/OEF veterans. Through the efforts of the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee and its subsidiary organizations, Togus VAMROC enrolled 500-700 new veterans each month from 2003 -2005. While this trend has slowed, Togus continues to enroll new veterans each month. Many of Maine’s National Guard and Reserve components returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are returning with illnesses and injuries requiring VA care, thus increasing the need for improved access to the VA system.
Due to Maine’s unique geographical size and the rising cost of gas, it is difficult for Maine’s rural veterans to travel to Togus and in some instances, the existing CBOC’s. Maine has no mass transit system. Maine’s veterans rely on the DAV shuttle bus for transport to Togus and the CBOC’s. However, in the northern counties, there is only one bus available. Many of Maine’s rural veterans are on a fixed income or unemployed and unable to afford transportation to the nearest CBOC or Togus. These veterans cannot afford health insurance or access to local health care.
The Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee believes Togus should be expanded to become a full service VA Regional Medical Center, independent of Boston. Maine’s rural veterans must now travel several hours one way to obtain care at Togus or a CBOC. To require Maine’s veterans to travel an additional three to eight hours to Boston to receive tertiary care is unacceptable. Maine has one of the top Cardiac Surgery Centers in the nation and leads the nation in long term care and end of life care provided to our veterans. Sending Maine’s veterans to Boston removes the family and local veteran support systems needed to effect recovery.
The majority of the nation is urban or metro and growth has slowed. Rural Maine has demonstrated a sustained growth and will continue this trend.
During my 2005 testimony, the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee urged the VA to open lines of communication to all veterans, not just in Maine. Historically, veterans have not felt the VA was user friendly and as a result, many older veterans and those serving on active duty have failed to avail themselves of the quality care provided by the VA system. This has not improved.
In Maine, the veterans have banded together to educate our veterans on the many services available to them. “Operation I served” is a joint project initiated to provide information on VA services, educational benefits, tax relief, financial assistance, housing assistance, long term care and end of life care available to Maine’s veterans, their spouses and families. Maine has the leading long term care system in the nation through the Maine Veterans Homes. “Operation I Served” has been requested and shared with many other states.
On behalf of the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee and the Maine veterans we represent, thank you for allowing me this opportunity to testify. The Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to enable the VA to provide quality care to all veterans.