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Beam: How long must veterans wait?

Last Modified: Saturday, August 03, 2013 7:10 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

The veterans of Southwest Louisiana five years ago were promised a medical clinic would be built in Lake Charles. They are still waiting. The prospects for success aren’t good because they have to depend on action from the most do-nothing Congress in recent American history.

Members of Congress love to praise the military, wave their flags and extol the virtues and sacrifices of our armed forces, but that isn’t enough. What veterans need is compassion from more than the handful who have worked so hard.

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, represents this corner of the state and he has gone above and beyond the call of duty on this issue. U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., have joined Boustany in trying to motivate their divided congressional leadership.

It was Boustany who encouraged CBS News to investigate the failure to open a Veterans Administration clinic in Lake Charles. CBS aired the segment last week, and it was well-done. Two local veterans were interviewed and told of the problems they are having with serious health care needs.

Deron Santiny is an Iraq war veteran who needs specialty care for the brain injuries he suffered in an IED explosion. However, the doctors he needs are in Alexandria and Houston, 90 minutes and three hours away from home.

Kelly Broussard, a former Marine, said he often cancels his treatment for post traumatic stress disorder because it poses a hardship on his family.

Both were interviewed at the VA Mobile Clinic located on Fifth Avenue, and they think it’s a pitiful substitute for the serious medical help they need.

“I think it’s pretty pathetic,” Santiny said. “Because you have guys that live here, fought for their country, did everything that was asked of them. And they came back and get seen in a mobile home.”

Those of us who travel to Jennings for our VA medical care were extremely excited back in 2008 when it was announced that clinics would be located in Lake Charles and Leesville. The new clinics would be activated over the next 15 months, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veteran health care was really going to be first class, the news release said. A VA official in Alexandria at the hospital there said the goal was to open the clinic by October of 2009 to serve the over 15,000 veterans living in Southwest Louisiana.

The opening date was moved to September of 2010 when the VA announced it was in the early stages of looking for a clinic site. There was talk of a 24,000-square-foot facility, a staff of 50 and expanded health care services.

Late in 2010, the VA said proposals had been received and the selection of a site would be announced by early March of 2011. Unfortunately, technical errors detected in paperwork caused another delay.

The second major problem surfaced when the Congressional Budget Office said the 27 clinics that had been proposed nationwide had to be financed one time for the next 20 years because they were purchases, not leases. That hiked the cost to $1.2 billion.

That was terrible news at a time when vital services are being reduced all over the country because of the budget sequester. And that, too, came because Congress is guilty of malfeasance.

An American Press editorial in October of 2012 summed up the situation well.

“The VA announced in June of 2008 that it would open a clinic in Lake Charles in 2009, then changed that to September of 2010, then 2011, then 2012, then 2013. Now, who knows?” the editorial asked.

Funding for the clinic was included by Landrieu in the U.S. Senate’s $3.7 trillion budget that passed in March, but it isn’t expected to go anywhere because of a divided Congress.

Is there a way out of this unbelievable screw-up?

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to reverse the CBO ruling about the leases being purchases and go ahead and build the clinics. Republican House Speaker John Boehner wants to study alternate ways to finance the clinics.

Wouldn’t you think this is one issue on which the two leaders could agree just for once?

Many saw the national exposure by CBS as a wedge to get something done, if for no other reason than to shame members of Congress who stubbornly disagree on almost everything.

James Jackson, vice commander of the state American Legion, isn’t hopeful. He said Congress can override the CBO ruling, but it’s a long shot.

Meanwhile, health care for veterans all across this country continues to decline. Even the Jennings clinic that saw veterans twice a year has gone to a phone call for that second visit. The doctor gets your blood work results and then calls and asks, “Everything going OK?” If you don’t have any problems at the moment, that’s it until next time.

Jackson said it best.

“The veterans are the ones paying the price for this, and it’s just not right,” he said. “No one really seems to care about the veterans anymore.”

Many do care, but they don’t make the major political decisions in this country. Those who do seem to have lost the will to provide essential and deserving health care for veterans who have given so much in defense of our liberties.

    • • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com

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