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Source: United States House of Representatives – Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5a)

Above: Gottheimer greets Lodi VFW Commander Felipe Flores and local North Jersey veterans.

LODI, N.J. – Today, Monday, June 24, 2019, at the Lodi VFW, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) announced steps, including newly passed legislation, being taken to address the staff vacancy crisis throughout the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) — especially in veteran mental health care.

Gottheimer led two pieces of bipartisan legislation, which passed the House of Representatives last week, that addresses filling vacant roles throughout the VA and increases investment to hire more mental health professionals.

These pieces of bipartisan legislation will now be included in the larger military and veterans affairs appropriations bill the House is voting on this week. The bill is expected to pass the House with bipartisan support.

Right now, there are nearly 49,000 empty positions throughout the entire VA system, leaving our veterans to face long wait times, cancelled appointments, and, ultimately, subpar care.

Fewer than half of all veterans returning home in need of mental health treatment are receiving the care they deserve. With increased incidence of PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and depression, and an average of 20 veterans dying by suicide per day, the VA Inspector General has stated that mental health professionals are the most needed occupation in the VA.

Gottheimer made today’s announcement at Lodi Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Memorial Post 5082 and he was joined by Felipe Flores, Commander, Lodi VFW; AJ Luna, Director of Veteran Services, Bergen County; Gina Pollut, Catholic Charities Veterans Services Outreach; and local North Jersey veterans.

“Right now, here in the greatest country in the world, whether it’s at the VA or in the workplace, too many veterans here in North Jersey and around the country are simply not receiving the support they deserve,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “I’m glad that both my bipartisan pieces of legislation are included in the larger military and veterans affairs bill that the House will be voting on as soon as we get back to Washington this week.”

Gottheimer continued, “We’re taking these vital steps – members on both sides of the aisle – because we know how much our veterans have done for all of us. We should always get their backs. I’m very proud to be able to lead these efforts.”

Gottheimer noted that an 89-year-old Fifth District veteran has been waiting for more than a year on the adjudication of his VA appeal. Gottheimer also noted a Vietnam veteran who has appealed two denied claims surrounding his disability resulting from Agent Orange exposure, and who has been waiting on a response from the VA for four years.

Video of the announcement can be found here.

Gottheimer’s full remarks as prepared for delivery are below.

I’m glad to be here today with the Lodi Veterans of Foreign Wars. And thank you to Lodi VFW Post Master Filipe Flores and Quartermaster Mike Feliciano for joining me. Mike proudly served our country in Yemen and during Operation Inherent Resolve.

Right now, here in the greatest country in the world, whether it’s at the VA or in the workplace, too many veterans here in North Jersey and around the country are simply not receiving the support they deserve. At roughly 70% of VA Medical Centers, the median wait time for emergency care is longer than at other hospitals. With one in four active duty servicemembers having signs of a mental health condition, not to mention other injuries of war, our veterans cannot afford to suffer through egregiously long wait times.

Today, I’m here to announce steps we’re taking to support our veterans and invest in their care, training, and success when they return home. It’s pretty simple: We should always get the backs of the brave men and women who have so courageously had ours. Who fought for our democracy and our way of life – in the Fifth District and across our country. There is no commitment more sacred.

First, we must fix the VA to ensure that positions there are filled – and filled with the best and brightest.  

Right now, we have a VA vacancy crisis with the total number of unfilled positions at the VA large and growing steadily. In fact, there are nearly 49,000 empty positions across the entire VA system right now. Imagine the hole that leaves. Our veterans continue to face long wait times, cancelled appointments, and, ultimately, subpar care. 

They deserve better.

Last week, I introduced and helped pass a key piece of bipartisan legislation that will help address the vacancy crisis.

This vacancy crisis has unfortunately hit home here in the Fifth District, where, for more than a year now, an 89-year-old District resident has been waiting on the adjudication of his appeal to the VA. More than a year’s wait for a veteran who is 89 years old is absolutely absurd. When my office called the VA to inquire about the long wait times, we were told “this is just how long it takes.”

Robert, another veteran from Belvidere, right here in my District, is a Vietnam veteran who has suffered from illnesses related to this exposure to Agent Orange. Robert has filed two claims for disability resulting from his exposure, but they were both denied in 2015. He appealed, but, four years later, he has still not received any response from the VA. Seriously? Four years? He didn’t as us to wait four years when we needed him to serve in Vietnam. Robert inquired about the expedited VA appeals review process — known as RAMP — but they told him the process takes about six years. Six years for an expedited appeal. You kidding me? We shouldn’t tie up our vets in red tape. 

When the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over VA issues, looked closely at this massive staff vacancy issue, that the number of vacancies forced long wait times without service.

Our veterans don’t have time for longer waits for doctor’s appointments, surgeries and treatments, mental health crisis care, and housing assistance.

My legislation, which passed in the House at the end of last week, addresses these critical staffing shortages at the VA and invests in filling those roles to ensure the job is getting done. It urges the VA to quickly address these vacancies that are affecting the entire agency. We have no higher obligation than to care for our veterans and that starts with making sure there are people in those jobs, getting our vets the resources they need.

Second, we must invest more in the mental health of all of our brave veterans.

Many of those in the veteran community are suffering from mental health conditions, with so many unfortunately suffering in silence. Right now, fewer than half of all returning veterans in need received the mental health treatment that they have earned.

The facts are daunting: An average of 20 veterans die by suicide per day. 20 veterans per day. Here in New Jersey, the rate of suicide among the veteran community is almost double that of the rest of the population. We’ve seen an increased incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and depression from our veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. My office has worked with a number of veterans who are suffering from PTSD to make sure they can access the care that they’ve earned – and this is care that they, unfortunately, absolutely do need.

Right now, at the VA, there are huge shortages in mental health staffing, which is completely unacceptable and far less than what our veterans deserve. According to the Inspector General for the Veterans Administration, mental health professionals are the most needed occupation at the VA currently.

That’s why, last week, I also introduced bipartisan legislation, which passed the House, that addresses this urgent issue facing the VA. It increases our federal government’s investment in the Veterans Health Administration, specifically to hire more mental health professionals.

In 2018, I also led legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law, to extend the Suicide Prevention and Resilience Program for National Guard members, veterans, and their families.

I also helped the new CBOC in Newton deliver in-person mental health care for our veterans. It started as tele-medicine, and now we have a regular mental health physician on site.

I’m very glad that Congress has now included both pieces of legislation we discussed today in the larger military and veterans affairs appropriations bill that the House will be voting on as soon as we get back to Washington this week.

We’re taking these vital steps — members on both sides of the aisle — because we know how much our veterans have done for all of us. And I’m very proud to be able to lead these efforts in this way.

Third, we must do everything we can to help our nation’s veterans get jobs when they return and access to education, so they can succeed at home.

That’s why I led legislation, last Congress, that was signed into law which accelerated the hiring of post-9/11 veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I worked on this idea after hearing from New Jersey veterans, like those here today, and from reports by the Department of Labor that post-9/11 vets face a higher unemployment rate than other veterans. 

I also cosponsored the Forever GI Bill, which was passed into law, and renewed the educational and economic promise we made to those who have so bravely served. The Forever GI Bill opened the door to educational and career opportunities for those returning veterans and their families including expanded educational benefits eligibility for Purple Heart recipients, more benefits for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs, and monthly housing allowances so that vets may live on campus while they are taking classes. I was proud to support this critical expansion in benefits to help train and educate our vets for their next careers. 

Our work doesn’t start and end back in Washington.

That’s why, finally, we must do everything we can here at home to help our Fifth District veterans and their families. It’s a very important part of my work here in New Jersey.

The House recently passed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, which extends benefits to service members, like Robert, who served in the territorial waters off the coast of Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange – and who, for years, have been denied the benefits they’ve earned. We’re changing that.

Last month, I met with the family of a Korean War veteran, who had recently passed away, and discovered that their father’s military documentation had been lost. So, the family called my office and we were able to track down the documents in less than a day. This ensured that the veteran received the full military burial honors he deserved.

Just this Spring, we celebrated the renaming of the Oakland Post Office after World War II Navy veteran and former Oakland Postmaster Frank Leone. My bipartisan legislation brought together New Jersey’s entire congressional delegation together to celebrate a great leader in our community and in our country. 

My hope is that other people pick up the phone if they need anything at all — a veteran’s issue or if they’ve lost a loved one who served — to ensure that they get the proper benefits and honors they deserve.

Through their bravery and, they’ve all helped ensure that, in the great country in the world, our best days will always be ahead of us. I’m fighting to ensure the same — for them — and for all of us.

Thank you again for being here today as we continue this fight. God bless you and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

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MIL OSI USA News