AUGUSTA, Maine — Secretary Eric Shinseki of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs aims to end homelessness among veterans and expand VA health benefits in even the most rural areas of the country, including Maine, he said Friday.
Shinseki visited the Togus VA Medical Center, touring medical units, talking with veterans and meeting with administrators. He came to Togus at the request of 2nd District U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Shinseki said his goal in visiting Maine was to better understand the challenges of providing health care benefits to veterans in extremely rural parts of the country.
“There are areas of this country that are urban, rural and highly rural,” he said. “And then there’s rural Maine.” Military veterans have earned their benefits regardless of where they live, he added.
Shinseki said he also is committed to ending homelessness among military veterans in all areas of the country within five years. By addressing issues of joblessness, mental health and substance abuse, he said, homelessness can be counteracted in a comprehensive and meaningful way.
Key to meeting these goals is having more money to work with, he said.
“I inherited a budget that was crafted before my arrival,” said Shinseki, who took office nearly 15 months ago. The 2008-09 budget, he said, had been “congressionally enhanced” to reflect growing public concern for the welfare of military veterans, but was still not sufficient to meet the need.
His $114 billion 2010-11 budget under development now reflects a 16 percent increase over last year’s budget, he said, and his planned budget for 2011-12 will add an additional 7.6 percent.
“There is an opportunity here for the VA to take care of some issues that have needed attention for a long time,” he said.
Shinseki said he has dedicated $250 million in his current budget to improving services to veterans in rural areas such as Maine. Initiatives such as new VA community-based outpatient clinics, or CBOCs, being built in Bangor and Lewiston, outreach centers in Houlton and Fort Kent, and mobile clinics that serve communities such as Greenville and Dover-Foxcroft all extend critical health care services to veterans who choose to live in far-flung communities, he said.
Asked about the availability of mental health services for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, among whom there are high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and suicide, Shinseki noted that there is nothing new about these problems.
“Other generations have gone through this before,” he said. “Vietnam veterans have probably carried the heaviest burden,” he said, because of the VA’s failure to anticipate and acknowledge the scale of the emotional, psychological and physical trauma associated with that conflict.
Shinseki, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., was twice wounded in action in Vietnam.
Under his administration, he said, VA financing for research into service-related mental health conditions has been increased, additional money has been awarded to CBOCs and VA centers such as Togus, and mental health care has been integrated into primary care settings, helping to reduce the perceived stigma of seeking psy-chological support. In addition, he said, all service members returning from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan are screened to determine if mental health services may be needed.
Increasing the availability of clinical services for veterans with mental health disorders is essential, Shinseki said, but veterans also must be encouraged to seek the help they need through VA and civilian providers.
The Togus VA Medical Center is on track to open a new 24-bed inpatient mental health center in June, replacing an outdated 16-bed unit, according to a spokesman. The relocation of the mental health unit will allow the renovation of medical and surgical units in the main hospital building, the spokesman said.
Shinseki acknowledged that many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had trouble taking advantage of enhanced benefits provided by the Post-9-11 GI Bill, including college tuition and other financial support. Those delays have been caused largely by overdue upgrades in technology, he said, including an outdated manual claims processing system that has bottlenecked the process.
That system has been updated to allow 7,000 VA benefit claims to be processed each day, he said, with more technology on the way. Tuition payments are now flowing to more than 200,000 veterans and their family members, he said.
Responding to recent concerns raised by the Maine Veterans’ Homes, a private, nonprofit organization that operates six nursing homes in Maine, Shinseki said he will look into complaints of underpayment. Maine Veterans’ Homes CEO Kelley Kash testified in March before Michaud’s subcommittee that the facilities, with 640 residents in residential care in Bangor, Augusta, Caribou, Machias, Scarborough and South Paris, have been losing money on care provided to veterans with service-related disabilities since the implementation of the 2006 Veterans Benefits Act.
Shinseki was appointed by President Barack Obama and assumed leadership of the department in January 2009. He served as the U.S. Army chief of staff from 1999 until 2003, stepping down just months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March of that year. He had been sharply criticized by Pentagon officials, including then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, over his testimony before Congress about the large number of troops he thought would be needed to secure post-war Iraq.
Michaud and 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree accompanied Shinseki on his visit to Togus.