Democratic legislators from North Jersey are calling on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to create a sixth Vet Center to serve the 36,000 military veterans who reside in the northwest corner of the state.
Currently, veterans who live in Morris, Sussex, Warren and Hunterdon counties have no option but to drive about an hour away to either Bloomfield, Secaucus or Ewing to access counseling and other vital support services.
In March 11 letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and Reps. Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11), Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) and Tom Malinowski (NJ-7) urged the agency to establish a Vet Center in either Morris or Sussex county to provide an option that is closer to home.
Increased Demand At Vet Centers
In New Jersey, Vet Centers, the VA-run community counseling centers for veterans, have seen increased demand at both Bloomfield and Secaucus by veterans struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in new clients being referred to out-of-state counselors.
While the referrals provide “immediate access for individuals requiring Vet Center services,” it is “merely a temporary solution because once in-person visits can resume, clients should not have to travel outside their home-state to receive care,” Booker, Sherrill, Gottheimer and Malinowski wrote in their letter.
Opening a sixth Vet Center “will remedy overcapacity issues” and ensure veterans can obtain care locally, they wrote.
Limited Access ‘Not Acceptable’
During a recent virtual roundtable with local veterans, in partnership with New Jersey SOS Veteran Stakeholders Group, Booker stressed the need to “make things better” for the country’s “unsung heroes” and said he believes it is important to “pay it forward to thank them for their service.”
“Veterans in Morris, Sussex, Warren and Hunterdon counties are facing numerous barriers to getting care,” he said. “The pandemic has only added and compounded those challenges.”
Limited access to services “is not acceptable” and “not the standard” the country should have, said Booker, adding, “Caring for the nation’s veterans is one of the most sacred responsibilities we have.”
The pandemic, Gottheimer said, “highlighted vulnerabilities in the healthcare system,” including a lack of a local Vets Center to serve Northwestern New Jersey.
He said it is crucial to “do everything we can to ensure all Americans, especially veterans” can obtain mental health care when needed.
A Veteran’s View
For Sherrill, the issue is a personal one due to her service in the Navy before entering public office. The congresswoman noted it was not just a federal issue but one that needs bipartisan attention at the state level as well.
“We want to make sure the VA has the resources it needs to be successful in the future,” said Sherrill. “Here in Northwest Jersey, it has been a little bit lacking. It’s going to take all of us to make this a reality.”
Sherrill thanked the staff in Bloomfield and Secaucus who have “worked aggressively” to make sure the medical needs of veterans were addressed.
“Even in these challenging times, I know you have worked day after day to serve every veteran,” said Sherrill. “It is incumbent on us to make sure you have the resources and capacity you need to make sure every veteran has access to services they need…that is local to them.”
Pandemic’s Toll On Veterans
As the coronavirus crisis drags on, veterans are reporting higher rates of isolation, anxiety, stress and hypervigilance.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, call volume for its main crisis line increased nearly 15% over the past year, a sign that some veterans are struggling.
A Wounded Warrior Project survey of 30,000 injured veterans who served after the 9/11 terrorist attacks found that over half reported declines in their mental health during the pandemic.
Veterans who reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder or depression are three times as likely to face hardships, the non-profit said in a follow-up white paper.