Healthcare issues dominated a listening session Wednesday at the Veterans Center in Rhinelander.
Wisconsin Department of Veterans’ Affairs Secretary John Scocos, state senator Tom Tiffany, representative Mary Czaja and representative Rob Swearingen hosted the listening session where more than 30 local veterans turned out.
Scocos started the meeting by praising the most recent budget passed in the state.
“This is the best budget we have seen since 1972,” Scocos said. “This budget will really help veterans and their families.”
The main area impacted by the new budget will be state’s Veterans’ Homes which house vets in need of medical care and their families. The homes were in disrepair and not operating to capacity just a few years ago but now are running a higher level according to Scocos.
“We are at 99 percent capacity at our Veterans’ Homes,” he said. “With the new budget, we will be able to put $15 million in to the Veterans’ Homes.”
This will be key as the demographic of the users of the homes changes.
“Right now we are seeing our Vietnam era veterans as the main group that is being serviced by these homes,” he said. “We are focusing on providing this group with the services they need.”
While the homes have seen an overhaul, much of the discussion at the two-hour meeting centered on healthcare and the VA system.
Several on hand complained about lack of service in the area and having to travel to Iron Mountain, Mich., for the nearest VA Hospital and to have some services performed. One vet said he cannot get reimbursed for mileage to visit the VA Hospital in Iron Mountain because he is not more than 70 miles away and he cannot take the free shuttle offered to veterans because he is more than 50 miles away.
Scocos said he shares the frustrations of the veterans with some inconsistencies in Federal rules.
“Those are probably Federal standards and we will look into that,” Scocos said.
Other vets complained about having to sit in the car sometimes eight to nine hours a day with back or hip issues.
“That is not a good combination,” said one vet. “You are pretty much can just lay around the next day.”
Scocos said the agency is working to help relieve those issues with a new agreement between the state and Wisconsin’s Tribes.
“The Oneida in Green Bay came to us and wanted to open up their Tribal Veterans Clinic to non-Tribal Veterans so they could use the services too,” Scocos said.
“We are excited about having these agreements with the Tribes because it will give us more facilities in rural areas.”
Many vets also spoke up about not being able to get their medical bills paid for due to problems in the system.
Scocos said he too shares that frustration with how the claims system works.
“Claims are our biggest issue,” he said. “Our claims people at the state and county level are good. But it goes to the Federal level and their is some hang up or it gets kicked back to us.”
Scocos and the representatives agreed to meet with many of the veterans one-on-one after the meeting but also encouraged vets not to sit silently if they are facing issues.
“If there is a problem out there, no one will know about it unless some comes forward and complains or lets us know,” Tiffany said. “We want to do all we can and are doing all we can for our veterans.”
Czaja said one of her jobs as a state representative is to make sure the problems of veterans are heard and dealt with.
“My staff is there to help however we can,” she said. “We may not be able to fix that problem, but we can find the right phone number and right person.”
Swearingen added vets should not be intimidated to call and voice concerns to their representatives.
“We are here for you,” he said. “Pick up the phone and give us a call.”