Rep. Rick Larsen speaks at a veteran’s forum held last Thursday. From left, he is joined by Michael Tadych, VA Puget Sound Health Care System; Kristina Messenger, Veterans Benefits Administration; and Randi Bowman, state Employment Security Department. Island County Veterans Resource Coordinator Cynthia Jennings also attended. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News Group

Rep. Rick Larsen speaks at a veteran’s forum held last Thursday. From left, he is joined by Michael Tadych, VA Puget Sound Health Care System; Kristina Messenger, Veterans Benefits Administration; and Randi Bowman, state Employment Security Department. Island County Veterans Resource Coordinator Cynthia Jennings also attended. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News Group

Larsen talks health care, housing at vets forum

A local congressman and a panel of veteran service providers fielded questions and comments last week from veterans frustrated with long wait times, lack of outreach and the difficulty accessing health care.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Arlington, moderated the event last Thursday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary Post No. 7392; he and the other panelists covered efforts related to employment, education, housing and health care and how former military personnel can access those resources.

Larsen discussed recent legislative efforts such as a bill he introduced to expand a pilot program that helps rural veterans with transportation to and from medical appointments.

The Rural Veterans Enhancement Act would continue reimbursement to veterans for traveling to centers for mental health care and counseling, stabilize a program that allows local Veterans Affairs facilities to purchase vehicles, and hire drivers and expedite medical screenings for volunteer drivers.

Larsen said he’s also introduced the Children of Fallen Service Members AMT Relief Act to ensure survivor benefits paid to minor beneficiaries are not subject to taxes.

Michael Tadych, director at VA Puget Sound Health Care System, spoke about implementation of the MISSION Act, which allows some veterans to receive care in their communities rather than traveling to a VA center. The new program, which replaces the Veterans Choice Program, launched in June.

A man said he’d been homeless previously and was helped by the Department of Housing and Urban Development Housing Choice Voucher, called HUD VASH, but it took months to obtain and he also wished he had known about it sooner, he said. He advocated for more outreach about the program.

Another woman said she’d been unable to find information about the county veteran resource coordinator, Cynthia Jennings, who was present at the forum. She later expressed frustration at the “log-jams” in receiving health and dental care.

Tadych said there has been progress in reducing the backlogs that resulted from difficulties in communication with TriWest Healthcare Alliance, which manages health benefits under the VA.

He said the number of patients waiting to receive community care has reduced by more than 50 percent in last three months, but there are still 4,000 aged consultations, which are consultations that have gone more than 30 days with no action taken.

Another woman asked about U.S. citizenship for service members’ children born overseas and about the policy on gaining citizenship after joining the military.

“Truthfully, there’s a lot of confusion about what the administration’s policy on dependents is,” Larsen responded. “I don’t have a clear answer for you because we can’t get a clear answer.”

He said the presidential administration is reversing a longstanding policy that granted citizenship to those who joined and fulfilled certain obligations. Larsen said there are people who joined with the promise of citizenship as an incentive who are now being denied. He said he hopes to reverse that stance.

“If you’re willing to die for our flag it seems to me that you aught to be given the opportunity to salute it as a citizen,” he said.

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