Before the Subcommittee on Health Committee on Veterans’ Affairs United States House of Representatives Regarding Women, Rural and Special Needs Veterans
April 21, 2008
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Miller, Distinguished Members of this Subcommittee, and guests, my name is John W. Wallace. I am a combat veteran who is presently Vietnam Veteran of America Maine State Council President. I serve on the Maine VHA MiniMac, BigMac, and Network Communications Council. I also serve on the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee, the Caribou Veterans Cemetery Committee, the Maine Veterans Home Liaison Committee in Caribou and I participate in the Commanders Call with the Governor/General.
Today I will briefly discuss with you some of the health related issues facing veterans in the state of Maine, which is home of more than 154,000 veterans and their families.
Mr. Chairman, the Maine Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center is located in Togus, six miles east of Augusta. Opened in 1866, Togus was the first national home for disabled volunteer soldiers. This VA Medical Center provides medical, surgical, psychiatric, and nursing home care. The VA operates community-based outpatient clinics in Bangor, Calais, Caribou, Rumford, and Saco to provide better access to care for veterans living in rural areas. In 2007, the VA opened a part-time clinic in Lincoln. There is also a Mental Health Clinic located in Portland.
More than 1,400 active-duty service members and veterans of the Global War on Terror have sought VA health care in Maine. Many veterans from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have visited VA counseling centers in Bangor, Caribou, Lewiston, Portland, and Springvale. These community-based Vet Centers are an important resource for veterans who, once home, often seek out fellow veterans for help transitioning back to civilian life.
Over six million veterans live in rural areas across America, and most fall below the poverty line. They travel hours to get to the nearest VA medical facilities. At a hearing of the Subcommittee on Health, Mr. Chairman, you pointed out that although 20 percent of the nation’s populace lives in rural areas, 40 percent of veterans returning from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq live in rural communities. This leads to “significant challenges maintaining ‘core health care services.” The average distance for rural veterans to access care is 63 miles, according to the National Rural Health Association.
The difficulty of accessing health care is a significant problem for many of Maine’s veterans. Although Togus is centrally located in Augusta, the state's geographic expanse makes it a problem for many veterans to use the hospital as their primary health-care provider. In a 2004 report, a government commission expressed concern that only 59 percent of Maine’s veterans were living within its geographic guidelines for access to care, which ranged from 60 minutes for urban areas to 120 for very rural areas.
Furthermore, research by the National Rural Health Association underscores the problem. The association found that about 44 percent of service recruits come from rural areas whose population comprises 19 percent of Americans. The disparity was far less during World War II and the Vietnam War.