February 01, 2024
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (SVAC), U.S. Senator Angus King questioned how long it is taking Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) officials to improve transportation reimbursements for veterans receiving care at vet centers – urging them to accelerate their approval process for these services. Senator King also stressed that counseling and other resources at local veterans centers are vital for the well-being and mental health of our veterans.
During the hearing, King questioned Michael Fisher, the Chief Officer of Readjustment Counseling Service in the Veterans Health Administration about what the department is doing to address slow rulemaking process and how the VA workforce shortages are affecting the services that the vet centers provide to Maine veterans and veterans across the country.
Senator King first raised the issue of the slow rule-making process for transportation reimbursements that 68 Bangor-area veterans rely on.
Senator King asked, “There's a pilot program under the Cleland-Dole Act for transportation to vet centers. … In Bangor, we have 68 veterans that are using it but the implementation of the pilot seems to be stuck in rulemaking, and the rulemaking is what constitutes financial hardship. When do you expect we're going to get the pilot operational? And this is really important for rural veterans. The top part of the state of Maine is extremely rural. We’ve got a lot of veterans up there. It's a long way to the nearest vet center. Talk to me about getting this pilot up and running.”
“Well, we expect the rulemaking process is averaging now 24 months to be able to get through what's important,” Fisher said.
King then responded, “Eisenhower retook Europe in eleven months, just saying.”
“Yes, sir. What's important to us is the public comment period, because this is new. We want to make sure that we're accurately defining what the financial hardship is,” Fisher responded.
“And I understand that you want to have input, but let's get on with it. In the meantime, we've got veterans that can't get to the vet center,” Senator King replied.
Senator King also asked Mr. Fisher about how he is working to fill in the workforce gap and why it’s critical in the effort to support our veterans.
“How about workforce? The vet centers have limited staff. They are really dedicated people. Are you having the same, are the vet centers having the same workforce issues that practically everybody else is,” Senator King asked.
Mr. Fisher replied, “We are experiencing those workforce issues and we are working to reduce those. Whether that is looking at our time to fill and looking for other ways to bring on staff.”
Senator King then asked, “I looked down the list of all of the things that the vet centers, the services they provide — really good important services. But we have had testimony here that one of the factors, particularly with regard to veteran suicide, is financial questions. I wonder about your thoughts of adding financial counseling to this list of services: VA benefits, screening medical issues, substance abuse. Financial advice and counseling, I think, could be an important adjunct to what the vet center provides.
“Thank you for that suggestion. We actually have vet centers that have partnered with that type of community partner to be able provide those services. But we can look into doing that in a more robust way,” Mr. Fisher replied.
“I would urge you to take a serious look at that, and we have had testimony at this Committee that this is one of the suicide factors. It strikes me as it fits well within the list of services that you are providing,” Senator King concluded.
Representing a state with one of the highest rates of veterans per capita, Senator King has been a stalwart champion for veterans and servicemembers in Maine and across the country. A member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he is committed to ensuring veterans and their families receive their earned benefits and support from the VA. He recently spearheaded the passage of legislation to better track and study servicemember suicides by job assignment. In a September 2023 hearing, he questioned VA officials in an SVAC hearing to shed light on how financial strain can impact veterans’ mental health. Senator King has also worked to properly honor and recognize the sacrifices of Purple Heart medal recipients, protect veterans from fraud, and expand veteran assisted living services.