By Jane Smith
The Meadville Tribune
WEST MEAD TOWNSHIP —
U.S. Sen. Patrick Toomey addressed issues facing veterans at a roundtable discussion Thursday morning at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Home on Morgan Village Road, telling those in attendance he was concerned about the backlog in disability claims and in the outbreak of the Legionnaires’ disease in the Pittsburgh area where 25 cases have been reported, five of them fatal cases.
In opening remarks, he told the group of approximately 30 people, which included veterans, directors of county Veterans Service Offices as well as elected officials, that he was “looking for your input.”
He told of one “small thing” he had done to help homeless veterans. He helped get passage of his bill regarding unclaimed property left at security checkpoints. The bill now requires that all items not claimed be handed over to homeless veterans groups for distribution instead of being discarded. He said he is hopeful that will bring attention to the very serious problems of homeless veterans in the country.
One man questioned Toomey on his voting record for veterans, noting Toomey has voted against the Veterans Administration appropriations bills “seven out of eight” times. In addition, he said Toomey in September 2012 voted against a Jobs Corps Act that would have helped soldiers find jobs.
Responding to the criticism, Toomey said that has come up at meeting six times in the last five weeks.
He said his vote was based on the fact that the VA appropriations bill was “tied with another appropriations bill” — for Housing and Urban Development Department. He said the bill would have added $1 billion in new spending for HUD without offsetting any of those costs through savings. He said he could not vote for new spending at a time of deficit spending.
In addition, he said Senate leadership would not separate the bills nor would it bring to the floor for a vote a Republican alternative bill that would have addressed the issues.
Toomey said had the two bills been separated, he would have voted for the VA’s appropriation, but he could not do so as long it was tied to the $1 billion in additional spending. “There was never an up or down vote taken,” he said.
Prior to that comment, those in attendance discussed a wide range of issues — many dealing with how claims are handled or not handled in a timely manner or because of errors in completion or legal issues prohibiting them from quick response. Mark Lessig, director of human resources for Crawford County, said one issue he faces in trying to find jobs for veterans at the county level is many jobs are covered by labor union contracts. Under those contracts, union members have first option on any job openings.
On another note, Lessig suggested veterans build their profiles and resumes over the term of their service so when they are discharged the resumes are available quickly for such programs as Hiring Our Heroes — a nationwide program implemented by the chamber of commerce.
Fred Cunningham, director of the Crawford County Office of Veterans Services, said one problem many people now face is that jobs are only 20 hours a week — so companies need not provide health coverage.
Another issue brought up was that although the federal government had funds for CareerLink offices to pay for staff, specifically veterans, many county CareerLink offices don’t have that staff. The question was what has become of the money designated for that staff. Toomey said he would look into that issue.
Among the many issues related to the sometimes lengthy claims reports and how they are handled, some are now being filed as “paperless” claims, bringing one man’s concern about lost records. Toomey said the solution is to be certain there are backup records on files should one be lost because of computer problems.
Staff members suggested that those having specific issues set up meetings with Toomey’s staff so they can be researched and hopefully resolved quickly.