Stefanik hears veterans' concerns
SARANAC LAKE — A tour of the St. Joseph’s Veterans Program gave Congresswoman Elise Stefanik a chance to meet with veterans recovering from PTSD and addiction.
She toured the Col. C. David Merkel residence halls here Wednesday and discussed successes and challenges with staff and residents.
One of the veterans in residence told Stefanik how welcoming this treatment center is compared with other programs he experienced through the Veterans Administration.
St. Joe’s, he said, is more in-depth, more familial and more relaxing. And being in a house with other warriors working through similar issues with addiction and post traumatic stress disorder has proved healing in itself.
Another veteran who recently completed treatment at St. Joe's said it was important to be treated like a person, not like a patient or a dollar sign.
St. Joe’s program for vets was established last year through the neighboring Rehabilitation and Treatment facility with support from New York’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
It is not a product of the federal VA program but does work through outreach from the VA.
CHANGES TOO SLOW
Stefanik (R-Willsboro) spoke at length about changes ongoing at the Veterans Administration, which was subject to federal audit and overhaul this past year.
Change is happening, she said, through the Choice and Accountability Act, a measure designed to increase care options for veterans, adding more timely treatment closer to home.
“But it’s not happening quickly enough,” Stefanik said.
Changes put in place so far aren’t working, she said, and the quality of care available is “not up to par."
The sheer logistics of rewiring an archaic system seems to be more of a stumbling block than proviso.
ACCESS TO CARE
In the North Country, a critical problem exists with travel time and distance.
“The difficulty they (veterans) have to go through to access care is challenging,” she said, especially from the North Country, where the closest VA center is two or more hours away in Albany.
“They are driving by local hospitals on the way to the VA (center),” Stefanik said.
Her solution would come as new legislation allowing “common sense” access to local hospitals for veterans medical care.
At St. Joe’s, Chief Financial Officer Russell Cronin underscored the problem.
“Our clients have to go all the way to Albany,” he said.
But St. Joe’s is working with Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, looking to add the hospital to the VA provider's list.
Federal regulations determine mileage between providers, Cronin explained.
With a Veterans Clinic is Saranac Lake that offers some outpatient services, Cronin said, there has not been room for another “provider” under the current rules.
Along with institutional changes to the VA, funding for military training has been threatened by sequestration policy that Congress put in place in 2011.
Sequestration requires arbitrary and automatic spending cuts throughout the federal budget.
The plan has threatened closure or cuts at nearby Fort Drum, along with all major military bases in the United States.
Asked if and when Congress will redress sequestration measures, Stefanik said she has been active in the Defending Defense Coalition, a think-tank looking to end arbitrary budget cuts.
“I’m confident that this year we can get rid of sequestration,” she said.
The congresswoman, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said she didn’t vote with her party on the first House budget allocation for military spending. She did vote for the second House plan that matched funding levels requested by President Barack Obama.
Across-the-board cuts by sequestration affect the ability of the U.S. military to properly train personnel, she said.
“That translates into lives and limbs on the battlefield,” Stefanik said.
The tour and discussion at St. Joe's was Stefanik’s second stop Wednesday, though both revolved around concerns of North Country veterans. The first was a roundtable discussion in Tupper Lake.
At St. Joe’s, Program Director Zachary Randolph described success they’ve achieved working with three phases of treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and addiction.
Even when the warriors have completed their program at St. Joe's, Randolph said, “they still have resources here which really allow them to reintegrate.”
St. Joe’s inpatient program for veterans opened last July. So far, 18 clients have been in residence, with six having completed the program.