Local USVI News

Disabled Veteran Advocates for Improved Healthcare Travel Reimbursement Policy; VA Director Suggests Senate Support

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“It’s a life and death matter for me,” exclaimed Joel Gifft at the Fritz E. Lawaetz Legislative Building on St. Croix, as he passionately advocated for veterans struggling to access timely healthcare services.

The Vietnam veteran tearfully shared his personal challenges in managing his health with the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Veterans Affairs, and Consumer Protection. Gifft urged lawmakers on Monday to discard a longstanding policy that restricts veterans’ access to healthcare outside local facilities and those in Puerto Rico, improving their chances of survival.

Gifft argued that the 50-year-old policy, requiring veterans to visit the nearest hospital, should be eliminated. He called for the governor, Washington representative, Mr. Farrell (Director, Virgin Islands Veterans Affairs), and veterans to advocate for policy change in Washington.

According to Gifft, obtaining care at the San Juan VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Puerto Rico can take six months to a year after a doctor’s referral. “By the time they get to us our situation is worse,” he lamented.

While Gifft praised the care he received in Puerto Rico, he highlighted the difficulties in accessing the facility. He criticized the federal government’s refusal to fund his travel to Miami, Florida, where he could receive necessary care without language barriers, while covering equal travel costs to Puerto Rico.

Patrick Farrell, director of the VI Office of Veterans Affairs, acknowledged the issue primarily falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs but agreed that local and state-side collaboration is essential. “The concerns have merit,” he conceded.

According to Farrell, Title 38 of the United States Code allows veterans to seek care at any VA facility. However, federal regulations authorize the VA to cover travel expenses for service-connected veterans only to the closest VA medical facility for appointments. The territorial government provides a small sum to the Office of Veterans Affairs for medical travel for each veteran.

Over 200 veterans travel to Puerto Rico annually, fully funded by the local veteran’s office, which receives approximately $450,000 each year for medical travel and burial benefits. In this fiscal year, the office has spent $49,835 of its allocation.

The Virgin Islands Office of Veterans Affairs awaits the implementation of the newly enacted PACT Act. Passed in August 2022, the Act expands VA healthcare and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances, allowing them to claim benefits and financial compensation for health effects resulting from exposure.

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