ICYMI: Blue Dog Special Task Force on Rural America Hosts Panel Discussion on Rural Veterans

May 10, 2018
Press Release

This week, the Blue Dog Coalition’s Special Task Force on Rural America held its first panel discussion on rural issues. The Task Force met with representatives of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) to discuss ways we can better support our nation’s rural veterans. The panel discussion covered several key topics, including the following: the future of tele-health care, how to address transportation challenges, the need for veterans nursing homes on tribal land, and incentivizing VA physicians to practice in rural areas. 

Twenty-five percent of our nation’s veterans live in rural communities, yet they continue to face barriers unique to rural areas when it comes to access to health care, housing support, and transportation they need when they return home from service. No matter where they live, veterans deserve high-quality care and support. That’s why the Blue Dog Special Task Force on Rural America is going to continue to pursue commonsense policy solutions that address the challenges unique to rural veterans. Click here to watch the full event. 

Below are excerpts from member opening remarks during the event: 

“When I came to Washington last year, it became clear to me that the voices of the people I, and the members sitting with me today, represent, were not being heard. That is why I joined my fellow Blue Dog Coalition members to launch the Special Task Force on Rural America. Our goal is to give rural America a seat at the table in Washington. The needs of families and businesses living in our rural communities are much different than those of the folks living in urban and metropolitan areas. 

“Unemployment is higher, access to resources to grow a successful business is more scarce, access to health care can be hundreds of miles in any direction, and the care our veterans receive, which is what we are here to discuss today, doesn’t always meet their unique needs. Anyone who wears our country’s uniform deserves the best care, but many of those living in rural communities lack meaningful and timely access for a lot of types of care they need.

“It is difficult for aging veterans to drive hundreds of miles to the nearest VA facility for care, and those who make the decision to live in a veterans home for long-term care often move away from their families and loved ones—it makes the care much harder. Managing chronic disease and accessing mental and behavioral health care is also challenging. And all these problems are compounded for American Indian veterans living in rural tribal communities. I, and many members of the Task Force have introduced or supported legislation that addresses a number of these issues, but that is only a small fraction of what can be done.”

Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ), Chairman, Blue Dog Special Task Force on Rural America 

“The challenges are always great in rural America, and this task force, under Congressman O’Halleran’s leadership, is focusing on veterans issues in rural America. I represent a large part of the San Joaquin Valley from Stanislaus County down to an area in Kings… We have a good veterans hospital in Fresno. We’ve improved it with additional funding since the Phoenix hospital situation in which there were a lot of problems. Congress has come together in a bipartisan effort, as you know, to try to address those issues. We’ve made some progress, but there’s a lot more we need to do… We’ve had a number of meetings with the California delegation on this over the last two years… Now, I said they’ve made progress: Yes, they’ve gone from 29 months down to 15 months [in wait time]. Well, I guess that’s progress. However, if you’re that veteran waiting to get your claim processed—and just as an example say they come back and they respond and they give you a 35 percent disability claim. But if you really believe and your doctor has indicated that your claim is really 70 percent. Well, you’ve got the appeals process. But that appeals process can take another year or longer. And many of these veterans are getting up there in years. We’ve had casework in my office where by the time we got the final claim responded to, addressed, and adjusted, the veteran has pass away. That’s awful and that’s shameful.”

Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), Co-Chair, Blue Dog Coalition, and Member, Blue Dog Special Task Force on Rural America 

“We have become very proficient in creating more veterans at a greater clip then we’ve ever done in the past, and yet we are failing poorly to provide them the health care they earned. Our shortcomings in regard to taking care of our veterans’ health needs are outright shameful. We should all be troubled to see year after year more legislation passed that leads to more veterans and less and less done to take care of their medical needs.”

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), Member, Blue Dog Special Task Force on Rural America 

“One of the few things Congress seems to agree on is helping our veterans these days… The CHOICE Act for rural veterans is critical in my district, and it’s tough for these guys to get care in a timely manner. The backlogs have been huge. The Phoenix episode—the ongoing Phoenix issue—has shed some light on some of the problems we’ve had, and I’d like to think we’re working through that. My veterans really like the care they get at the VA when they get in. We’re reducing the timelines. Portland is the worst in Oregon. Timelines are now starting to go back up—they were down, and now they’re starting to go back up. We’re having a tough time recruiting specialists in particular… we’ve opened a number of CBOCs—community based veterans clinics—some are successful, others we struggle to keep providers there. Even in Salem, Oregon, which I wouldn’t call too rural, we have a tough time keeping people there. So that’s, like the Chair was talking about, is an ongoing challenge that we see.”
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR), Member, Blue Dog Special Task Force on Rural America