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Witness Testimony of Mr. Henry J. Cook, III, Military Order of the Purple Heart, National Senior Vice Commander

Chairman Filner, members of the committee, ladies and gentlemen.

I am Henry J. Cook, III, National Senior Vice Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH).

It is my honor to appear before this committee which is of such great importance to all veterans.  The MOPH is unique among veteran service organizations in that our members are all combat wounded veterans who shed their blood on the battlefields of the world while serving in uniform.  For their sacrifices they were all awarded the Purple Heart Medal.

I am accompanied today by MOPH members and state officers of our organization from both Louisiana and Mississippi.  Also present are ladies of the Ladies Auxiliary of the MOPH.

I would like to preface my remarks today with a statement of thanks to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in both Louisiana and Mississippi for the way that they reacted and took care of veterans when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck.  Almost all other government agencies at both state and federal levels were overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and consequences of those storms.  However, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Medical Centers and Regional Offices in both Louisiana and

Mississippi maintained their focus on care for the veterans during this trying and challenging time.  The services to the veterans provided by them were without equal and in some cases heroic in the way that veterans were cared for and moved from harms way by caring employees of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.  I ask that you also commend the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for the way that they continue care for veterans in the aftermath of that catastrophic event. 

Your committee and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center in New Orleans are both very important to members of the MOPH and all veterans from both Louisiana and Mississippi who were served by the New Orleans facility.  As we sit here today, your committee is here but the hospital is gone.   From our perspective, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs medical system in the New Orleans and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is struggling to deliver, at best, badly fragmented services to veterans.

The MOPH is now looking to your committee to restore the New Orleans Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center and the badly needed services it provided to our members and all veterans in this area.  This should be done as soon as possible so as to prevent further loss of services and provide full restoration of earned entitlements and benefits for all veterans in this geographic area.

To better explain what I meant earlier by services to veterans being “fragmented” I submit to you some specifics.

That while the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in New Orleans is in fact providing services for veterans many of the veterans have to go to other locations to receive that care.  In my particular situation, I received, prior to Katrina, orthopedic services from the New Orleans facility.  Since that facility is gone, it took me more than six months to even schedule an appointment for an orthopedic services but I discovered that I had to travel to Mobile, AL to receive such services.  Fortunately I am physically and financially able to  travel to Mobile, AL and other locations but that is not true of many veterans.  Further, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, while having established “travel pay” for veterans who have to travel more than 28 miles for care, pay the grand sum of eleven cents per mile.  More painfully the veteran must pay a deductible when travel pay is given to him out of the first three trips of each month.  This, when gas is over $3.00 per gallon.   

We in the MOPH have members who now have to travel to Mobile, AL, Jackson, MS, Pensacola, FL and other more far flung destinations in order to receive continuing care from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs medical system.  The present system of health care for the veterans in this area is fragmented according to every definition of that word.  Please return to the veterans here a world class medical facility that can serve our membership and all veterans at one location.  And I might add, do this as soon as possible to mitigate the continuing deprivation or the earned benefits and entitlements due  our veterans.

There is one other problem area relative to the loss of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center and Regional Office in New Orleans that I would like to bring to your attention.  This involves the loss of the ability of veterans to pursue their claims and obtain those pesky earned benefits again.

The Director of the State Veterans’ Affairs (Claim division) for the state of Mississippi informed me that many veterans who were having their claims processed in the New Orleans Regional Office soon discovered that their claims had been transferred to the Jackson, MS regional office.  The Jackson Regional Office willingly accepted this responsibility of seeing the veterans from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  In many cases involving veterans from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast veterans could not be located for medical appointments and documentation needed for their claims.  Many veterans, widows and their children went for months without appropriate attention to their claims thereby adding to the pre-existing backlog of claims pending. 

Once located however, the veterans, widows and their children they were faced with the problem of travel to Jackson, MS to continue the process of their claims. This again placed an added burden on the veterans and in some cases, their widows who found travel of three hours or more not only difficult but expensive.  During most of the first year after Katrina there were many veterans who were truly homeless and living in shelters or temporary trailers far from Jackson.  This condition still exists today with many veterans still living in FEMA trailers and pressed financially. 

The transferring of all claims from the New Orleans and Mississippi Gulf Coast area created a terrible burden on the Jackson Regional Office and even though the personnel of that office were overwhelmed they tried hard to continue to deliver services to our veterans.  While I do not know the status of the back log as of this date as a result of the loss of the New Orleans Regional Office due to Katrina, I do know that I hear the comments of those veterans who claims questions remain unanswered.

In summary, we all know that Katrina had a devastating effect on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs medical care system in this area.  We should all know that what is most important now is a full restoration of all veterans’ medical services as soon as possible.

Grandiose plans for what could be in the future are of no use to our members and veterans who have been deprived of earned benefits and care.  The time is now, the need is now.

Thank you very much for allowing me to appear before your committee on behalf of the MOPH. 

I am now ready to take any questions that you may have for me.