On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance heard testimony from the Office of V.I. Veterans Affairs, requesting $1,180,390 in General Fund appropriations and highlighting key strides made for the department.
Patrick Farrell, director of Veterans Affairs, told senators that $460,791 of the budget will cover personnel salaries and fringe benefits, $269,599 for operating expenses, and $450,000 for non-service related and elective medical travel and burial benefits. Additionally, Veterans Affairs estimates $117,000 of non-appropriated funds from the V.I. Lottery and Taxi-Cab Commission for everyday operating expenses. Last fiscal year, the same amount was requested for General Fund appropriation, though it was earmarked differently.
Farrell told senators that one position, an administrative officer II, is currently funded at 50 percent and is the only position vacant.
“The intent of the agency is to have this position funded at one hundred percent and convert it to a media relations type position,” said Farrell.
Committee chair Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory asked Farrell when the department plans to fill the position, to which he replied they will have it announced by the second quarter of 2024.
“Unless you have someone that leaves you’re not going to be able to fill that position until the last quarter in fiscal year twenty-four,” said Frett-Gregory. “We need to give you back the position at one hundred percent. All departments and agencies are not created equal. You don’t have the luxury of several, of five or six, ten vacancies where you can say well let me fill these because I could use funding from this and do the dance. You can’t do a dance.”
In his testimony, Farrell took no haste in providing feedback to legislators about recent strides his office has been making. These advances include partnering with the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs to conduct toxic exposure screening for veterans exposed to agent orange, contaminated water, and burn pits, finalizing transportation services for veterans to attend medical appointments, building of crypts and columbarium bearing in both districts while awaiting release of funds for construction of state cemetery, advocacy for a veterans community care office in the territory, and pushing for the Veterans Affairs office to pay for medical costs and funeral expenses upfront as opposed to reimbursing veterans. The director added that the Veterans Affairs Office was able to also collaborate with Dr. Shereef Elhnahal, United States Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Health, to work towards “bringing the hospitals and the department of health more into the VA community care network.”
“You are seeing that veterans feel more comfortable receiving the services here at home opposed to traveling to Puerto Rico,” said Sen. Carla Joseph. “They have to have that level of comfort.”
“If we get all 8,000 veterans to register here with the VA clinic in St. Thomas or St. Croix, the VA clinic will be obligated to give us more specialty services and resources,” said Farrell.
According to Farrell, about 8,000 veterans are registered in the territory and the Veterans Affairs office services 2,500-3,000 territory-wide annually. Regarding the community care office in the territory, he is hoping that within fiscal year 2024, they will have the office set up. Additionally, Farrell has a “one-stop shop” vision for the community center. Frett-Gregory encouraged Farrell to explore options for funding the Clarence Beverhoudt, Sr. Veterans Complex, such as CDBG funds, for building a multi-purpose veterans center that could transform into a shelter. According to Farrell, the $1.5 million appropriated by Act 8650 will only cover design and demolition for the project.
So far, for the FY 2023, 47 families of deceased veterans have been assisted, with $203,200.58 being expended to cover funeral costs.
Juliette Frederick, program administrator for the Veterans Affairs office, said that their department is now able to roll over unused funds for medical and burial.
“Just recently we have been able to keep our monies. Before it used to go back into the General Fund, then they give us a whole new $450,000. But for the first time last year we were able to roll over the balance.”
Joseph asked the department for “some reconsideration” to be made for increasing the reimbursement for the cost of travel since veterans can receive a $250 allocation whilst families of deceased veterans receive $5,000.
“We are doing our very best to keep them on top of God’s earth,” said Joseph.
Sens. Donna Frett-Gregory, Marvin Bylden, Diane Capehart, Dwayne DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, and Carla Joseph were in attendance at Tuesday’s hearing.