By Ron Leir
A delegation of the region’s veterans convened at the Nutley VFW to cheer news of the Senate’s passage of a bill designed to facilitate returning GIs’ access to health care, as announced by Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez.
The Senate voted 91-3 to move the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability & Transparency Act in the wake of stateside veterans’ long wait times for treatment at V.A. hospitals and falsification of records at the V.A.’s Phoenix, Ariz., facility.
According to a joint release by Menendez and Booker, the bill will fund $10 billion “to establish a Veterans’ Choice Fund to pay for eligible veterans [those living more than 40 miles from a V.A. clinic or those who have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment] to get private [non-V.A.] medical care,” $5 billion to hire more doctors and medical staff to expedite delivery of care to veterans, and authorization to build or expand 27 V.A. care centers in 18 states, including one in Brick, and Puerto Rico.
It will also extend, by three years, V.A. pilot programs providing veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI) access to specialized care by non-profit agencies.
Booker told the crowd that many New Jersey veterans “had to travel out of state, to Pennsylvania and Delaware, to get treatment” but he credited Menendez for “helping set up a residential care approach for brain-injured veterans.”
One such veteran, introduced to the audience by Booker, is Iselin native Gary Schall, who, after serving in the Navy 1984 to 1988, reenlisted after 9/11, joining the National Guard, did two tours in the Middle East, “and suffered a brain injury,” Booker said.
Confined to a wheelchair since 2008, Schall was referred to a V.A.-sanctioned assisted living pilot program for veterans with TBI run by the nonprofit agency Bancroft, reportedly the largest human services provider in New Jersey with treatment facilities in every county. Schall is currently living in an apartment at the nonprofit’s Cherry Hill campus and receiving daily therapy.
“Bancroft has been a lifesaver,” said Sandy Reilly, Schall’s sister. “My brother was upset that he lost his independence. But now he’s walking with a cane, he’s cooking again, he’s got a new attitude.”
Booker and Menendez agreed that while the bill is a good first step, there’s more to be done.
As for the issue of elongated wait times, Menendez said that’s something “we’re going to monitor closely,” along with clearing up the “backlog of TBI disability claims.”
There’s also the matter of finding shelter and work for returning veterans, the legislators said. In Newark, Booker said, “I see homeless veterans in Penn Station and others living on the street.”
“We should give businesses tax credits to hire veterans and more significant credits to those who hire disabled veterans,” Menendez said. “I’d like to see businesses pledge to hire 100,000 veterans by the end of the year.”
Nutley’s Jack Kane, newly elected state VFW commander, was asked his take on the new federal law, which, according to Menendez and Booker, provides for “an expedited process to remove incompetent managers at the V.A.”
Hopefully, Kane said, “it will be helping to clean out the V.A. – to get the people who did the bad things out. They’ll hire new doctors, let the [local] veterans go for treatment in this area. I hear about people waiting and waiting but it happens so often, they consider it normal. It seems to be a problem all over.”
But Kane said he doesn’t fault former V.A. Secretary Erik Shinseki, a former combat veteran who ran the department for the past five years, for the problems documented by an Inspector General’s report. “It wasn’t his fault,” Kane said. “The people changing the [wait time] records to get bonuses should go to jail.”
In a statement released after the event, Nutley Public Affairs Commissioner Steven Rogers congratulated the senators for their pro-veterans efforts and also credited “veterans organizations like the VFW, AmVets, American Legion, and DAV, working in partnership with our elected officials” to ensure “that no veteran in Nutley is left behind.”