SENATE VETERANS HEALTH COMMITTEE VISITS RIO GRANDE VALLEY
(HARLINGEN)—Improvements have been made to the health care available to south Texas veterans in recent years, but much more needs to be done. That was the thrust of the testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Veterans Health during a meeting in Harlingen on November 29, 2010. Chaired by Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, the committee travelled to the Rio Grande Valley, an area that local veterans say has been historically underserved.
Until recent years, it was not unusual for Valley veterans to have to drive five hours to San Antonio for even the simplest care under the VA system. Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville welcomed the committee, saying new facilities recently opened along the border have eliminated the need for that eight hour round trip for many veterans. Lucio said that was why he and Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen joined to help pass Proposition 8, allowing the state to contribute to the establishment of veterans' facilities in south Texas. He also pointed out that in addition to local residents, many of the 100,000 Winter Texans, visitors from out of state, are veterans and need assistance while in the Rio Grande Valley as well.
Paul Moore, Executive Secretary of the Texas Veterans' Land Board, described the long-term nursing care that is currently available to veterans through the state nursing homes. There are currently seven homes with a new one being constructed which Moore says, is at the cutting edge of veterans' health care, giving them even more privacy by "eliminating the institutional feel...it looks like a neighborhood of homes." When asked by chairman Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio what more needs to be done, he said that given the state's budget deficit, allowing greater flexibility in financing facilities would be useful and that they were working on new ways to fund new construction. He said the services are desperately needed as the veterans homes are more than 95% full with waiting lists - in an era when private nursing homes are only 65% full.
Terry Crocker, CEO of Tropical Texas Behavioral Health, gave the committee an overview of mental health facilities in the Rio Grande Valley. He said that despite expansion in recent years, they are not able to keep up with demand of a population that is both growing and among the poorest in Texas, with a waiting list of more than one thousand people.
Larry Perez, Commander of the American GI Forum of Texas, appeared in support of a State/Federal partnership that would bring a full Veterans Administration hospital to the Rio Grande Valley. He said that the biggest obstacle to getting full health care in the Valley is funding and that Texas, with the largest and fastest-growing population of veterans, is working to meet that need. Even so, he told the committee, despite recent improvements the nearest hospital for veterans is still a five-hour drive to San Antonio. He called for the state to encourage local communities to offer incentives to encourage nursing homes for veterans to be built in their communities so that the growing population of Vietnam Veterans that need those services could be close to their families.
Salvador Salinas, of the Cameron County Veterans Services Office also expressed gratitude for the additional veterans services that have been established in the Rio Grande Valley over the past few years and told the committee that more than 33 thousand veterans, all local residents, currently use veterans services in their area. He said that number is set to increase dramatically as current veterans age and new veterans come back from the Middle East, making a full veterans hospital that much more important. He also asked for the committee's support in expanding the McAllen veterans nursing home, as it is currently full with a waiting list.
Ray Molano, President of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 56 of the Rio Grande Valley, told the committee that a Valley veterans hospital is needed because the long drive to San Antonio has caused additional health problems for veterans who make the long drive for outpatient surgery, that patients have actually died because of a lack of medical care on the five hour drive home.
Tony Cordoba, of the Purple Heart Chapter of the Veterans Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley, credited the VA with helping him with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and expressed thanks for the many veteran services that are now available in the Rio Grande Valley. However, he said "neither our nursing home, nor our veterans' cemetery, would be as full if we had a veterans' hospital down here" and that "many people think south Texas ends in San Antonio...there are 24 counties beyond that." He testified that the number of veterans who visit the Valley in the winter months is exploding, and that they must be considered in any allocation of services.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Minnie Whitzel, USMC Retired, and founder of RGV Vets and Wounded Vets Foundation, reminded the committee that there are more and more female veterans that need services and that at this time are even finding it hard to get space from the local VA officials in which to hold their meetings. She said that on one block in her home town of Donna, there are fifteen veterans and that it "takes an act of Congress" to get services in the Valley, as opposed to the main hospital in San Antonio where services are more freely available. Chairman Wentworth asked if there wasn't "a little gender discrimination going on" and was assured that "no, no this wasn't the case, that the local officials just don't recognize the need". Public testimony followed.
Linda J. Lopez testified on to her care under a VA contract for Multiple Sclerosis. She told the committee that long waiting periods in the emergency room at local hospitals demonstrate the need for a veterans hospital in the Valley. Senator Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio replied that current soldiers are being diagnosed with MS and it could be caused by chemicals that our "fighting forces have been exposed to...there is a definite link". Other witnesses also testified about the need for a veterans hospital in deep south Texas.
The Texas Senate Select Committee on Veterans Health is chaired by Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio. Members include Senators Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, Brian Birdwell of Granbury, Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and Jane Nelson of Flower Mound. At today's meeting the committee was joined by Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville. The committee recessed subject to the call of the chair.