Veterans gave vent to their concerns about employment, medical and dental care and home loan programs during a town meeting Monday sponsored by the Senate Committee on Government Services, Consumer and Veterans Affairs.
The meeting drew an audience of about 50 to the American Legion Myron G. Danielson Post. No. 85 in Christiansted.
The meeting was hosted by the committee chair, Sen. Justin Harrigan.
The panel, which opened the meeting with a brief description of services available to veterans, included Shaula Jeffers, St. Croix Veterans Program Coordinator; Latoria Bass, readjustment counselor/social worker, St. Croix; Adrienne L. Williams, director VI Housing Finance Authority; Ilene Garner, executive director UVI Center for Community Engagement Lifelong Learning (UVI-CELL); Antonio Sanchez, MD Administrator/CEO Chief of Staff Caribbean Healthcare and Eric Bermudez; Rosalyn Webster, vice president and manager of Mortgage and Consumer Loans at Banco Popular; and Tracy Vallarde, mortgage originator FirstBank.
Veteran Merrill Ford raised three concerns. First he asked, “I want to know why no veterans are employed by the veteran’s department.”
Harrigan, who served as director of the Office of Veteran Affairs before his Senate stint, said veterans get points added to test scores during the employment process. However, he added, “You still have to be qualified.”
Bass responded that she was a veteran and that there were other veterans employed in the veteran services bureaucracy.
Ford also asked how veterans could refinance their homes and get a lower mortgage rate, and about a program that gave veterans an opportunity to buy their first home at below market value.
He said the second program had been cancelled.
“It is like you service no longer mattered,” he said.
He also asked about changes in a Virgin Islands homestead act.
Another veteran, Brent Williams, said there is nodental care for veterans in the territory, and mentioned the high cost of going to Puerto Rico for dental treatment. He was one of three veterans who expressed dismay over veteran’s medical care.
One veteran told the panel that getting an appointment on Puerto Rico through the veteran’s administration takes five months, but privately for that same medical condition he was able to get an appointment on St. Croix in a week.
Another said he has waited a year to get a call back from the Veteran’s Administration concerning his medical coverage.
Garner pointed out that all veterans could enroll in UVI-CELL classes free of charge. She added that not many veterans were taking advantage of that and funding for the program could be cut if it is not utilized more.
Free counseling services are also under-utilized, according to Bass. She said the services are available free to anyone serving in combat areas or suffering sexual trauma during military service.
Veterans traveling to Puerto Rico for medical reasons can get their travel reimbursed if they supply the necessary documentation. If an escort is necessary, their travel expenses can also be reimbursed.
For those looking to buy a home, Webster of Banco Popular, said, “We will work with you.”
Williams said vets are fed up and worse.
“Vets are scared to go to the VA hospital,” he said.
Sanchez, chief of staff of Caribbean Healthcare, said they want a system that works for the veterans and one they are not afraid of.
“We want a system that works for you. It’s important that you don’t lose hope in the system,” he said, adding they want to maintain, build and improve the system for the veteran’s needs.