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Full house at Larsen’s meeting on veterans issues; House calls for $14.5 billion funding increase for VA, $12.4 million set aside for Mitchell Hill, Cattle Point Road
His latest appearances in Northwest Washington have been dominated by discord over the effort to reform the nation’s healthcare system.
But on Monday in Friday Harbor, Congressman Rick Larsen got a break.
For the better part of an hour, Larsen, D-Bellingham, and regional Veterans Administration officials were able to talk to and listen to local military veterans regarding issues that matter most to them, and about the new services and initiatives that the federal agency has in store.
More than 50 islanders packed into the American Legion Hall in Friday Harbor for Larsen’s fifth and final regional “Conversation With Veterans.” Whatever dissatisfaction may have been brewing among the standing-room-only-crowd over healthcare reform remained, for the most part, bottled up.
Still, there was plenty of dissatisfaction with the VA in general, and with the hurdles that local veterans must scale to obtain benefits and services, specifically, to fill the time.
Some wondered why the VA couldn’t team up with local healthcare facilities to provide services in those areas where the agency has little or no presence. Others asked if the VA could contract with PeaceHealth to offer services on the island once a critical access hospital is built in Friday Harbor. And still others wondered why veterans don’t receive preferential boarding status on the ferries, and why there’s no reimbursement benefit in the event one needs to be flown off-island.
Larsen said there’s “a long way to go” until the VA is adequately funded and the needs of veterans, particularly in the rural areas, are met. However, he noted that legislation recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives calls for a $14.5 billion increase in the VA’s budget. If approved, it would equate to a 58 percent increase in the budget assigned to the agency almost three years ago.
“Is it enough?”, Larsen asked. “It may not be, but I think it signals more of a commitment to improvement than the VA has had lately.”
Larsen, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, worked with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to win funding for the Northwest Washington Community Based Outpatient Clinic, which opened May 18 in Mount Vernon. Located near Skagit Valley Hospital, this veterans’ clinic brings VA health care closer to home for veterans in Island, San Juan, Skagit, North Snohomish and Whatcom counties. Washington state’s 2nd Congressional District is home to more than 75,000 veterans, and San Juan has one of the highest concentrations of veterans of the state’s 39 counties.
According to DeAnn Dietrich, deputy director of the VA’s Puget Sound Health Care System, about 2,500 veterans are enrolled at the Mount Vernon clinic and another 500 are waiting to be enrolled. Dietrich said that the VA is trying to better meet the needs of rural-area veterans under a new “rural initiative” and recognizes that’s an arena in which it’s fallen short in the past.
“The message is we’re not done yet,” she said.
In addition, Dietrich noted the VA’s Seattle healthcare facilities will be undergo a $14 million expansion and remodel thanks to federal economic stimulus funds.
According to John Park, VA’s director of healthcare planning in Puget Sound, an assortment of recent changes to VA’s benefits offer local veterans immediate rewards. The mileage reimbursement was raised recently from 28 cents to 41 cents. The income threshold to qualify for benefits, $43,500, was increased 10 percent.
In addition, he noted that the “date of separation” for combat veterans will be extended to five years instead of two, and that a 90-day deadline to apply for full dental benefits has been extended to 180 days.
Meanwhile, Larsen noted the president’s budget includes $6 million that’s targeted for the purchase of San Juan Island’s Mitchell Hill, owned by the state Department of Natural Resources. He said that he’s requested $6.4 million to be included in the next federal transportation budget to help pay for the relocation and construction of Cattle Point Road; a section of the road on Mount Finlayson has long been threatened by erosion.