Kilili pushes health services for veterans of US territories


WASHINGTON, D.C.—In pursuit of his goal to have a Veterans Affairs medical clinic serving veterans in the Northern Mariana Islands, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) successfully added a requirement for a needs assessment to legislation approved by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee yesterday.

The legislation, H.R. 4243, establishes a commission to make recommendations on modernization or realignment of VA health facilities.

Sablan’s amendment specifically requires that the VA’s capacity to provide hospital care, medical, mental health, and geriatric services for veterans in the Marianas and other U.S. insular areas also be looked at.

Committee chair Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tennessee) acknowledged Sablan’s concern during the committee meeting. “We have discussed in my office the issues that you are dealing with,” he said. “So, Mr. Sablan, I understand very well where you are coming from and the lack of services that you have.

“You have my commitment to try to help you,” Roe added.

“I very much appreciate…Roe’s willingness to pay attention to the lack of veterans services in the Marianas,” Sablan said. “And I remain optimistic about the chairman’s commitment to me and other Pacific area representatives to hold a hearing on our veterans next year.”

Roe talked about his interest in going personally to other areas of the country to get a feel for how veterans are being served. “I know what my own VA looks like at home, but I want to go to others,” he said. “I’ve been to both Democrat districts and Republican districts to look. And I’ll continue to do that as long as I am chairman.”

Sablan’s study provision was originally directed solely at the situation of Pacific area veterans in the Marianas, Guam, and American Samoa. But he expanded the study’s scope, during the committee mark-up, to include Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He made the change at the request of Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico).

“Representatives of the non-state areas have to work together, even across party lines,” Sablan said. “Our interests as ‘territories’ are much more similar than our differences as Republicans or Democrats.

“So, just as my amendment will potentially help veterans in American Samoa, represented by Ms. Radewagen, a Republican, I also want to be sure that veterans in the Caribbean are taken into consideration.”

Sablan has only been a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee since the beginning of the year, after requesting a special waiver to serve on a third committee. But he is using his membership effectively to help Marianas veterans, who often have trouble getting the services they are entitled to.

“I have used my short time on this committee to bring attention to the lack of direct VA care and services to the veterans living in the Northern Marianas,” Sablan said in prepared remarks at yesterday’s committee meeting.

“In addition to being the only U.S. jurisdiction without a VA facility, the Marianas also has no dedicated VA medical or mental healthcare professionals to serve veterans.

“In the Northern Marianas, veterans must rely instead on community providers for the care and services they want to receive from the VA.”

Reliance on community providers is made possible by the Choice Act, which allows veterans to get medical services outside of the VA system. Many veterans in the Marianas and many healthcare providers were unaware that Choice was available. So, Sablan conducted informational workshops earlier this year on Rota, Tinian, and Saipan.

Sablan brought the CEO of TriWest, the third-party administrator of Choice, to the Marianas for the events. And more than 60 new providers signed up to make their services available to Marianas veterans.

The Choice program is open to veterans who live more than 40 miles driving distance from the closest VA facility. Sablan and other members of Congress, representing remote and rural areas, agitated for several years about the difficulties that distance created for their veterans. The Choice program was created in response. (PR)

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