A former naval officer’s ongoing dilemma in securing health benefits in his struggle against cancer was only the tip of the iceberg Monday as numerous examples of hardship and adversity facing many of our U.S. military veterans were met head-on at a forum attended by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis.
While Tony Karniss said he was generally satisfied with his medical care in treating renal cell, prostate and lung cancers, the same couldn’t be said about his failed attempts to obtain his federal veteran’s benefits to pay for his services.
Herrera Beutler invited Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, the top ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to come to Chehalis with her to speak with area veterans Monday afternoon.
The federal legislators listened to Karnis’ account of visiting the QTC Medical Group in Tacoma, for a physical evaluation to allow him to obtain federal benefits through Veterans Affairs, only to later find out that his appearance was never recognized by the VA. Karniss recounted that he was advised to come in for another examination as if the first had never occurred.
“Somewhere, someone needs to do something because I don’t think benefits communicates with the medical doctors at all,” said Karniss. “Someone needs to stir up the soup and get benefits to work harder or better with the medical aspect of it.”
Fellow Armed Forces member Jack Lakely of Onalaska, on the other hand, voiced his dismay in continually being burdened with the task of making arrangements for the remains of deceased veterans who often go unclaimed.
And then there was Jay Smiley, who spoke on behalf of the American Behavioral Health Systems facility in Chehalis, located at 500 SE Washington Ave., as he informed the two Republican lawmakers of a lack of space and services to accommodate a steady flow of veteran mental health patients in need of shelter and counseling.
“We get people from Spokane, Walla Walla, across the state. We’re trying to get to the local people (and) get local health, local families that can come visit. I’m noticing with the VA (The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) is that their programs are lagging behind,” Smiley said. “We have veterans, gentlemen, who have served our country, who maybe have no homes, no income. The VA is trying to take care of them and the VA has no facilities.”
Smiley added that many ex-military officers afflicted with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) aren’t being placed in programs they desperately need.
Herrera Beutler explained how the federal government has increased funding for mental health across the board by more than $200 million, though the results have yet to materialize.
“The problem I think is that we're just scratching the surface because we don’t have enough providers; we don’t have enough facilities,” she said. “It’s a multifaceted problem and it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach.”
Roe, a Congressman representing Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District and a Vietnam veteran, lent some perspective on the matter by sharing how a myriad of communities across the nation face the same plight. He said 80 to 90 percent of inmates in Tennessee’s jails are non-violent drug users.
On that note, Roe, also a physician and self-described “Middle Tennessee farm boy,” said 6,000 U.S. veterans commited suicide in 2018. The incidence of female veterans taking their lives is 2.2 times that of non-military women, he added.
The VA National Suicide Data Report documents more than 6,000 reported veteran suicides every year from 2005-2016.
Roe suggested how offering active and non-active duty military members on-demand counseling can be an effective solution in decreasing those numbers. He used the Guard Your Buddy phone app as an example of an affordable service that gives hopeless individuals a shoulder to lean on 365 days a year, including Christmas Day.
Roe also spoke on Monday about 80 pro-veteran Congressional bills he’s helped pass since becoming the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Thirty of them, he said, have been signed into law.
Among the legislative pieces, he highlighted the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Act, which allowed the VA to increase its staffing from 250,000 employees to more than 380,000 presently.
He also mentioned the Veteran Appeals and Modernization Act, which has been instrumental in hastening the adjudication of outstanding disability claims.
“It literally gives you three lanes in which you can go,” detailed Roe. “You could stay where you are or you get into a lane and accelerate that process.”
The third major legislative measure he touched on was the ratification of the Forever GI Bill, a benefits package that furnishes veterans with a per diem and tuition subsidies that, according to Roe, will never sunset.
“Now, I don’t care if you served for 15 minutes. If you bleed for this country, you get the GI Bill for the rest of your life,” he confirmed, while also noting his efforts in ending a decades-long campaign to supply Blue Water veterans to collect previously inaccessible VA disability benefits for illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War.
Prior to the meeting’s conclusion, Herrera Buetler made sure to obtain the contact information of some of her veteran constituents in attendance, as she promised to assist with their legal and medical concerns.