Veterans from Dixfield and other towns told U.S. Rep. Jared Golden this week about problems they’re having getting information and access to services, and timely responses to claims.
Their concerns and questions were shared at a town hall meeting Monday called by the Maine Democrat and held at Swasey-Torrey American Legion Post 100. Golden’s staff also attended.
American Legion District 5 Commander Randy Canwell of Mexico said he’s had problems trying to get information and services for health benefits by phone at the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta.
“There’s a lot of issues but I think there’s one that keeps coming up that’s brought to my attention and that I deal with,” he said. “It’s the phone systems when they send (your call) out West or someplace and you’re on hold for half an hour or 40 minutes.”
Golden said he would be “happy to try and dig into” the problem. “The system, Togus, most of us would agree, is important and does some good stuff but there is a lot of frustrations like this one that feel unnecessary.”
Joy Bordeau, chaplain at American Legion Post 24 in Rumford, said she made a health claim three years ago and it split into six separate claims by the VA health services.
Bordeau was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where people living or working at the U.S. Marine Corps Base were exposed to drinking water contaminated with industrial solvents, benzene and other chemicals from the 1950s to the 1980s.
“I’m a Camp Lejeune toxic water veteran,” Bordeau said. “I had two (claims) answered, I’ve been waiting almost a year for two more to have a hearing and I have yet to hear about (claims) five and six.
“What kind of a system is that?” she asked. “That makes no sense. Is there a breakdown somewhere?”
Golden said he and his staff could help her get the status of the other four claims and requested her information to do so.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as a part of the Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, qualifying veterans can receive all their health care (except dental care) from VA if they served on active duty at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987, even if they don’t have a health condition that is presumed to be related to exposure. For individuals with one of the 15 medical conditions presumed to be related to exposure, there is no charge for care.
Another veterans asked Golden why there is no way to ship packages to veterans overseas for free and asked about having a federal grant to help renovate American Legion buildings to attract more active duty personnel and veterans to join local posts.
Charlie Green, commander of American Legion Post 100 in Dixfield, said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said an in-house lodging program to treat substance abuse at Togus is no longer available.
“We’ve still got millions of vets that need that kind of care,” Green said. “Why did Togus take that away and start spending millions of dollars on signs they don’t even need?”
Golden acknowledged he was also diagnosed with PTSD when he returned from Iraq and he received help from a veterans’ center in Lewiston.
He said he’s concerned that Togus doesn’t have the in-patient care for substance use or mental health issues.
“I’m actually working on a letter right now to tell (VA) services I don’t find that to be an acceptable outcome and that they need to hurry up and bring that back,” Golden said.
The U.S. representative from Lewiston talked about his and his staff’s success in Congress in matters such as the Blue Water Navy Act. “We passed the Blue Water Navy Act. It was really important and it is now ensuring that a lot of Vietnam vets are going to have access to the VA care for cancers and other diseases and illnesses that they are struggling with day to day.
This year, President Donald Trump signed the act, which extends disability benefits covering medical conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure to those who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam, known as “Blue Water” Navy veterans. Veterans who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange if diagnosed with a medical condition associated with the herbicide, according to the Agent Orange Act of 1991.
“Agent Orange exposure in our blue water . . . everyone knew it was a big oversight and one that Congress wasn’t acting on for a lot of years I think because they just couldn’t figure out how to pay for it but I’m very proud that we got that done,” Golden said.
Golden said Dixfield is the 112th town he’s visited since January to discuss his work to improve benefits and services for Maine veterans.
“We’ve put emphasis on getting into areas that tend to get left out,” he said. “It’s easy to hold the gathering in Lewiston or Bangor if you’re thinking about numbers, but from a perspective of a convenience to the people in the community, I think that we should try to come to them.”