Traffic jams related to high winds and power outages delayed the start of Congressman Rick Larsen’s town hall meeting for veterans Saturday at the Mountlake Terrace Senior Center, but when he arrived he was greeted with a filled room and many questions about veterans issues.
Larsen, a Second District congressman who sits on the House of Representatives’ Veterans Affairs Committee, started the meeting by outlining legislation that he has been working on that is aimed at serving those who have served in the Armed Forces.
Included is the just-passed Veterans Identification Card Act of 2015, which makes it easier for veterans who need ID cards to obtain them. Also in the works is a defense bill provision to ensure that the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration use the same formularies for medications, so that when soldiers transition out their prescriptions are consistent between agencies. “That is a barrier to health care for veterans,” Larsen said.
And Larsen said he is working to permanently extend the Rural Veterans Travel Enhancement Act of 2015, to ensure veterans who need rides to health care appointments can get them. The legislation also reimburses combat veterans for the miles they drive to access mental health care services. (In Snohomish County, the closest facility is Everett).
Finally, Larsen noted that he hopes to ensure, through the current defense bill, that the number of Military Occupation Specialties (MOS) are expanded so that veterans can receive credentialing for skills obtained while in the military. When soldiers leave the service, their experience should count for jobs in the civilian world, he said, adding: “We’re trying to shed a few more barriers for folks in transition.”
Larsen also had a panel of specialists from state and federal agencies who were available to answer employment, health care and disability questions.
One of the initiatives highlighted was VA Choice, a program created last year as part of the VA reforms bill. It allows veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles a way from a VA facility, to go to non-VA providers that are part of the TriWest provider network.
In round numbers, about 100,000 veterans are in the Puget Sound health care system and about 25,00 of those are eligible for VA Choice — but only 7,000 of that 25,000 have taken advantage of the program, Larsen said.
He also addressed a program available through the Snohomish County Housing Authority to address homelessness, known as Department of Housing and Urban Development – VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH). The goal is to move veterans and their families out of homelessness and into permanent housing.
Snohomish County has 199 vouchers for the program, and once a veteran graduates into permanent housing, the vouchers can be used by someone else, Larsen explained.
Larsen also took a question not related to veterans, but one that has been in the news lately – whether he will support a nuclear deal with Iran. Federal lawmakers from Washington state are beginning to take a position on the proposed deal, which was reached on July 17 after lengthy negotiation and now is under a 60-day review period by the U.S. Congress.
“I don’t have anything to announce today about my position,” said Larsen, who explained that he is reaching out people he knows who are both in support of and opposed to the deal, and will announce his decision prior to the start of Oct. 8 Congressional debate on the agreement.