Stefanik, veterans brainstorm VA health solutions at St. Joe’s

SARANAC LAKE – Sitting among 20 veterans at St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers’ veterans residence, U.S. Rep Elise Stefanik asked them to expound on what they hear about health care in the North Country.

At that juncture, about a half-hour into the discussion, the most vocal person at the afternoon round table, Clinton County Veterans Service Agency Director Steven Bowman, spoke up once again.

“Access,” he said.

“Access?” the congresswoman replied.

“Access, access, access,” he added.

Bowman then painted a picture of the plight of a veteran struggling with health issues in a remote Adirondack village.

“We have veterans, they live in a rural part of a county, maybe 40 miles away from the (Veterans Health Administration) clinic,” he said, “And they’ve got one working vehicle and their wife works. So the veteran doesn’t have the capacity to get back and forth to the clinics, needs help.

“Access, transportation – it all folds in together,” he continued. “When we are looking at the VA, we are looking at a national institution that is unwilling to adjust, unwilling to change and difficult to make changes to the needs of the veterans today and the changing needs of the veterans of yesterday.”

Stefanik’s (R-Willsboro) roundtable with local veterans organizations and representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday afternoon also touched on the success of St. Joseph’s Col. C. David Merkel Veterans Program. At the event, co-hosted by St. Joseph’s and the veterans community support group Homeward Bound Adirondacks, one former resident said the program saved his life.

Since its launch in July 2014, the 25-person residential program has helped many veterans struggling with drug addiction and other mental health-related issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of them were in attendance Tuesday, speaking of their academic success at places such as Paul Smith’s College or employment success at places such as St. Joseph’s inpatient program.

But the session also touched on how difficult it is for veterans to get help in the North Country. The buzzwords used throughout the afternoon by Stefanik, St. Joseph’s CEO Bob Ross and vets were “flexibility” and “creativity.” Bowman was not the only vet who described the VA as not willing to adapt to changing times and challenges for its patients.

Bowman had a particular concern with a lack of options for home-bound patients, claiming there are 97 vets in the North Country who need that special care. Pointing blame at VA administration, Bowman said the vets aren’t getting the help they need.

“Central office is a nemesis for VA health care,” he said.

Speaking at the head of the room, Stefanik and Ross both said the region needs to look more into creative ways of using local services to solve the issues Bowman and others spoke of. Stefanik highlighted the success of the Merkel Veterans Program at this site as an example of how something new and different can be done.

“The VA is a way we can take those ideas and hopefully replicate them across the country,” Stefanik said.

Bowman was unrelenting in his criticism, painting a picture in which the state VA’s services are detached from the predicament of veterans, especially in the North Country. He said 2015 enrollment numbers were being used to help veterans in his county, though his office has enrolled more than 100 new patients this year.

“Funding has not kept up,” he said. “The specialists I need are not in the North Country now.”

Commenting from the back of the room, the Merkel center’s Director of Programs Zachary Randolph said he thinks the solution will come from both private entities and the government.

Speaking toward the end of the session, Lake Placid American Legion Post 326 Commander Jordanna Mallach said she felt the problems Bowman described in the North Country are akin to what civilians see in the region. Mallach said she feels the veteran population in the North Country reflects the diversity of veterans across the country, and she supported the idea that the VA’s care needs to be decentralized and tailored to the individual.

“To solve the homelessness problem in America, you solve the veterans homelessness problem,” she said.

Mallach also said she has concerns with a disconnect between vets coming out of programs such as St. Joseph’s and employment opportunities in the area. After the session, Ross said a better bridge needs to be created from St. Joseph’s to area employers. He said he expects St. Joseph’s to set up training programs and internships with some of the area’s larger employers for veterans in the later stages of its program, specifically mentioning Plattsburgh.

“The skills and assets that are required in the military, it’s challenging to transfer them to the small businesses that are primary employers in the North Country,” said Mallach, a National Guard veteran of the war in Afghanistan.