Veterans Can Get More Help, But Probably not More Travel Reimbursement

Patrick Farrell listens to a question from Sen. Samuel Carrion Monday. (Screenshot)

Patrick Farrell, Veterans Affairs director, is of the opinion that being at the Legislature four times discussing medical travel reimbursement issues was at least one time too many. Vietnam veteran Joel Gifft is of the opinion that his reimbursement issue has never really been addressed. Their meeting at the Veteran Committee on Government Operations, Veterans Affairs, and Consumer Protection Monday to testify was sometimes tense.

Farrell questioned why Gifft was even present. Farrell said, as far as he knew, when an agency was invited to the Legislature to give an overview of their agency, those outside the agency were not invited to testify.

Committee Chair Carla Joseph responded that the reimbursement issue was about a policy change and the Senate needed to know about policy changes.

Gifft said he was testifying “to make the case for U.S. Veterans (residing in the Virgin Islands) to be reimbursed 100 percent for the cost of their airfare, when seeking medical attention, at a U.S. Veterans Administration medical facility, on the U.S. mainland or Puerto Rico.”

He said the policy was such for a dozen years and then changed a couple of years ago. Now, he said he only receives a maximum of $250. He added that tickets for his trip could be as high as $1600.

Farrell said his department pays what it can pay within its budget restraints. The federal government will only pay for transportation to the nearest veterans’ medical facility, which in the Virgin Islands’ case is Puerto Rico. The territorial veteran affairs office would have to pick up the cost of going to a medical facility in the states.

Gifft said there is a language barrier when being treated at the Puerto Rican facility and a long waiting period for appointments.

Farrell testified, “Federal Regulation authorizes the VA to pay for the travel of service-connected veterans to the closest VA medical facility for VA medical appointments. To augment that federal guideline, the Office of Veterans Affairs reimburses 100 percent of any non-service-connected veteran’s flight arrangements to the closest VA medical facility.” (Service-connected refers to an injury or illness that happened when a person was serving on active duty.)

He added to augment the federal help, the local office will help with the travel of veterans who elect to travel to a VA medical facility of their choice versus the closest one. This appears to refer to the $250 to which Gifft refers.

Veterans can seek care at any VA medical facility in any jurisdiction under the United States flag; how they get there is another situation.

Sen. Milton Potter questioned Farrell about where the funds for veteran medical travel came from and how much there was. The funds come from a line item called Burial and Medical Travel. Five thousand dollars are allowed for a veteran’s burial. The line is budgeted for $450,000 each year. Farrell said most of that money goes to burials. He added that $80,000 had been rolled over from the last fiscal year to this year.

Gifft had said, “The money is there. Why not spend it till it’s gone and then appropriate more.”

President Joe Biden signed in August the PACT Act, which expands VA health care and benefits for veterans who were exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances. Farrell says his office supports its full and prompt implementation.

He said educating local veterans about the Act “is particularly important considering the recent intense level of television advertisements aggressively seeking veterans to join class action lawsuits to address potential disabilities from toxic exposures at Camp Lejeune. Alternatively, Veterans can file a claim with VA accredited Service Officers, including claims examiners, for absolutely free.”

Additionally, Farrell mentioned a territory driver’s license project where the territory’s veterans will now be identified on their driver’s licenses. He explained, “This will serve as a multi-purpose project; it will assist in getting more accurate data as it relates to the number of veterans physically within our shores. Secondly, we intend to initiate a territory-wide campaign to encourage business owners to take part in a veterans discount program.”

He estimated that the territory now has about 8,000 veterans but less than 3,000 are registered with his office.

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