State Department of Veterans Affairs hosts town hall meeting

LIHUE — Jim Armstrong was emotional Friday when he spoke about the hardships his fellow veterans face when receiving benefits.

“There are millions of veterans who don’t get the fair benefits they deserve, and I think that’s why they commit suicide,” said the U.S. Army veteran. “I tell you that as a veteran.”

The state Department of Veterans Affairs hosted a town hall meeting at the Kauai Veteran Center to answer questions and talk about concerns veterans have.

It was also a way for people to meet the new director of the Veterans Administration Pacific Islands Health Care System, Jennifer Gutowski.

“I’ve been with the Veterans Administration for almost 15 years,” Gutowski said. “This is more than a job for me. My dad was a Vietnam vet, so this is personal.”

While Gutowski knows there are challenges, she says it’s nothing the community can’t face if it works together.

“We can do this. My No. 1 concern is that I connect and hear all of the voices,” she said. “I want to listen, so we can together build a road map to serve our veterans here in Hawaii.”

About 20 people attended the meeting.

Armstrong, who suffers from chronic pain, said he’s been fighting with the VA for 15 years because the organization says it needs more evidence before he can be treated.

“But this isn’t just about me. It’s for all the veterans,” he said.

During the meeting, Deborah Johnson, daughter of a World War II veteran, asked Gutowski about her plans to improve access to specialty care.

“It can take months and months, and in the meantime, you don’t know if there’s something serious going on,” Johnson said.

Gutowski said the first step is to get an assessment of recruitment.

“For me, I’m just getting on board, but I want to understand where the constraints are,” she said.

Dr. Kathryn Ryder, assistant chief of staff for the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, said there is a struggle to get access in Hawaii, especially in the dermatology, podiatry and pulmonology fields.

“We’re trying to be as creative as possible. We have a tele-health program we’re expanding,” she said.

John Leashure, who served in the Army for 20 years, also said he has concerns about his benefits.

“They seem to fade away with each administration,” he said. “They keep lowering what they cover, and because I’m retired, I worry.”

But Leashure says there’s a silver lining because the Trump administration is considering reinstating Veterans Choice, a program that allows eligible veterans to receive health care in civilian hospitals instead of waiting for a VA appointment or facility.

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