Washington state Rep. Rick Larsen lends an ear to Island County veterans

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Jobs, homelessness, delays in claims processing and the Veterans Administration’s new Choice program were just some of the issues Rep. Rick Larsen touched upon during a veterans roundtable in Oak Harbor Friday. The meeting room at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7392 on Goldie Road was packed with veterans and spouses interested in hearing what Larsen and other experts on vet-specific programs had to say.

Rep. Rick Larsen addresses veterans at the Oak Harbor VFW.

Rep. Rick Larsen addresses veterans at the Oak Harbor VFW.

According to Larsen, there are 55,000 veterans throughout Washington’s 2nd Congressional District, which he represents in Washington, D.C. This was the third of six such events in the district.

Larsen began with a brief update on legislation he has worked on, such as the Rural Veterans Travel Enhancement Act, which he introduced earlier this year with Rep. Mac Thornberry, chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

“This has a huge impact on rural veterans, and a similar program is scheduled to end at the end of the year,” Larsen said. He added that this legislation is not meant to be a substitution for programs like the Disabled American Veterans vans, but a supplement to it.

The Veterans Identification Card Act was signed into law in July and provides an identification card to all eligible veterans.

“Some veterans have had to use their DD214 to prove their service,” Larsen said. “This eliminates the need for them to do so.”

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Rep. Rick Larsen addresses veterans at the Oak Harbor VFW.

Larsen also said he has pushed for an expansion of the civilian credentials portion of the National Defense Authorization Act, which would increase civilian credentialing of more military occupational specialties and shorten the time it takes to credential veterans transitioning out of the military.

That move is aimed at helping veterans find jobs, something with which Bill Adamek, a Veterans Employment Representative with WorkSource, is very familiar. He announced that a recent meeting with NAS Whidbey Island Commanding Officer Capt. Mike Nortier led to a decision that could be helpful to future job-seeking veterans.

A room full of veterans and spouses listen to Rep. Rick Larsen.

A room full of veterans and spouses listen to Rep. Rick Larsen.

“The base will let us know who the contractors and subcontractors are and what positions they are hiring for so we can get local people hired,” Adamek said. In addition, he announced that the first 30 minutes of a job fair coming up in October will be for veterans only, and a mini-job fair is in the works for the south end of Whidbey Island.

There is also an increase in help for homeless veterans in the area. Monica Lopez, of the Opportunity Council, said Island County has been given 14 vouchers specifically for homeless veterans that puts a roof over their heads and allows the Opportunity Council to work with them on keeping that shelter.

“Homelessness is a real problem among our veterans,” said Dana Sawyers of Island County Veterans Services. “It’s important for us to identify options and opportunities that are safe and healthy for our veterans.

“Island County is reported to have the highest veteran population in the state, but we don’t know much about them or their needs,” Sawyers said. “We need those numbers to determine the areas where support needs to be increased.”

A veteran at a roundtable discussion with Rep. Rick Larsen asks a question.

A veteran at a roundtable discussion with Rep. Rick Larsen asks a question.

Most comments from the crowd seemed to focus on two issues: the backlog of claims at the Veterans Administration and the VA’s new Choice program for veterans, which provides them the option to receive care from approved providers within their communities.

Rob Hard, from the Seattle VA office, said the backlog of claims is now below 100,000. While several people in the audience gave examples of their claims and appeals lasting as long as six years, Hard said those are now exceptions to the rule.

“We don’t have everything where we want it,” Hard said. “But the wait is half as long as it was a year ago. In terms of making sure people get their benefits, we’re doing much better.”

When it comes to the Choice program, Larsen and his team of experts were pelted with questions and complaints.

John Beckham, who works with the VA Choice program, admitted there have been problems in terms of people having to wait to see a local provider, short authorization times and confusion over the rule that stipulates veterans must live 40 miles from the nearest VA facility, as the crow flies. Larsen said they are working on changing that to driving miles and asking VA personnel to also look at where veterans are driving from before making a final coverage determination.

“The challenge we have is that it’s new,” Larsen said. “We gave the VA three months to get [the Choice program]up and running, and that’s Congress’ fault.”

Larsen referred many of the questions to his staff to be dealt with one-on-one, as did Hard and Beckham with many of the claim and Choice program questions.

Veterans who have questions about their Choice program referral are asked to call 800-329-8387. Callers should press “1” when prompted and enter extension number 62876.

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