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Veterans get some attention

After more than a decade of waiting, veterans should finally have a community-based outpatient clinic in Mount Vernon by next spring.

A veterans town hall packed the Oak Harbor American Legion last Tuesday night, providing a forum by which issues could be raised and discussed, and if necessary, followed up on.

The town hall, with attendance nearing 100 people, included a panel comprised of First Gentleman Mike Gregoire, State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, and state Reps. Barbara Bailey and Chris Strow. County Commissioners Mac McDowell and John Dean also attended the meeting, along with Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen.

Several veterans stressed that a VA clinic in Mount Vernon was a long time coming and would be an ideal, centrally-located asset for Island, Skagit and Snohomish counties.

“We need a centrally located building,” said Dave Michel of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 47 in Oak Harbor.

Upon hearing that a request for proposals had been posted for the VA-staffed clinic and the opening date was estimated for spring, thunderous applause replaced skepticism.

John Lee, Washington Department of Veterans Affairs director, assuaged Michel’s concerns about the facility’s permanence. He assured the veterans that the clinic would be there to stay and enrollment would not necessarily affect eligibility for fee-based services.

The following day, the contingent of area veterans attended a second event put on by U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen at the Elks Lodge in Oak Harbor. City Councilman Paul Brewer suggested the VA clinic be constructed on Whidbey Island, but the general sentiment among the approximately 100 attendees was that Mount Vernon would be an optimal location that would benefit veterans in a wider geographical radius.

Similar issues arose at both of the events. All of the participating politicians dutifully took notes to later research the inquiries.

Lee urged veterans to call the DVA’s toll-free number at 1-800-562-2308 or email him personally at john@dva.wa.gov. He made a pledge that if the caller did not reach a human voice, the call would be returned.

“I’m confident if you contact me, we will be able to help you,” he said. “Sometimes all it takes is you calling a toll-free number or sending me an email.”

One of the issues at the town hall included Senate Bill 5256 and House Bill 1102, which will be considered during the truncated legislative session that will begin January. The bills would modify property tax exemption provisions for veterans of the armed forces.

Veteran Bob Fiorito said because of the category used by the state for veterans “retired because of a disability,” the door is left wide open for the government to take non-taxable income.

Archie Lillis attended both events, lamenting the existence of HR 5122. The veteran said as an employee of a federal contractor, he is required to take the company’s Group Health program, even though he is still paying Tricare costs.

“The federal government is catering to insurance companies,” he said last Tuesday night. “I don’t need by damn Group Health. Give me my Tricare and leave me alone.”

Vietnam veteran Mike Peterson asked about tuition waivers for dependents of fallen servicemen and women, and permanently disabled veterans. Lee informed him that an all-inclusive law was recently passed to provide just that to dependents.

Another attendee Tuesday, requested that the county commissioners make space available for a veterans service officer to serve vets in a central location.

Fiorito, making the rounds, asked Larsen Wednesday how the government will tackle reduction of the backlog of claims. The politician said part of the VA funding, the largest increase in history, is expected to be used to whittle away at the backlog.

Fiorito also suggested mandatory funding, adding that discretionary funding can be counter-productive and lead to wasteful spending.

“Mandatory funding is something I support and something that’s very difficult to get,” Larsen said.

The Wounded Warriors Assistance Act was designed to investigate complaints about medical facilities and generally improve health care for wounded servicemen and women. Larsen recognized that the system in place now is not prepared for the types of injuries coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re trying to play catch-up with a system that was set up for the Vietnam era,” he said.

Prior to the Tuesday town hall, a Veterans Appreciation Day and Assistance Fair was held at the American Legion.

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