Berlin Daily Sun: Kuster starts three day tour at Berlin Vets Center
GORHAM – U.S. Congresswoman Annie Kuster (NH-02) held a 3-day "North Country Listening Tour" last week, visiting various facilities focusing on economic development and providing access to affordable health care to veterans, seniors and families across the region. Kuster visited facilities in Gorham, Berlin, Colebrook, Lancaster and Littleton, ending in Bethlehem, at the site of her new North Country office.
The tour began at the Berlin Vets Center in Gorham, where she met with representatives of over a dozen groups and agencies that provide various services to veterans.
Kuster told representatives that she was appointed to the Veterans Affairs Committee and is "very, very committed to issues involving New Hampshire vets." She also serves on the Agricultural and Small Business Committees.
"Those three pretty much cover North Country issues," she said.
"We're excited to have you here, particularly about veterans affairs, which is what we're all about," Jay Sprinkle, Director of the Berlin Vets Center said.
He noted that the previous week the center had held a cookout and a couple veterans who were homeless attended. "We got them connections that very day," he said.
Keeping veterans out of jail, and thus building connections with law enforcement, was another important part of the center's job, Sprinkle said.
"Health care will be part of our discussion in Colebrook, possibly making the hospital there a satellite facility," Kuster said.
"The way this (Berlin Vets Center) has come together, I've never seen a group that works so hard, has gelled so fast, knew where they were going so quickly," Paul Robitaille, who was there not only as a Gorham selectman, but also as a representative from NH Service Link, said. "It's a joy to work with all of you."
Each representative then explained what they or their agency did to help veterans.
"Homelessness looks very different up here than Manchester," said Maureen Ryan, N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, Homelessness and Housing. "Geographically, most can't walk to services; it's colder up here, in the southern part of the state they can sleep outside longer; and there are fewer shelters."
She noted it was harder to identify homeless veterans up here, as they are often taken in by people, but usually just temporarily.
"The fabric, family and friends, is much stronger here," Kuster noted.
Sprinkle noted that veterans from here don't want to go south for services.
One of the topics that came up is a pilot program that has begun in Strafford County and in Nashua and Rochester where veterans who have gotten in trouble don't go to jail but are hooked up with service providers, then meet with a judge weekly, who monitors their progress.
A backlog of applications for medical services has been a source of frustration, Kuster noted. One of the things she said she's learned since she's been in Washington is that the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs medical records systems are completely different. She said billions was been spent to get them to connect, but apparently it can't be done.
The good news on that front, however, is the backlog seems to be decreasing. The backlog for August was 773,000 claims, but that's the lowest it's been since 2011. The backlog is down 20 percent from where it was four months ago.
Of the backlogged claims, about one-third are new claims and three-quarters are supplemental claims, which means they are getting some but not all they are entitled to, Kuster said.
Kuster said she is working on legislation to try and deal with the backlog issue as well as military sexual trauma issues and whistleblower protection.
Locally, James Michalik and Sue Watson from the Family Resource Center in Gorham spoke about that agency's role in the area of veteran services. The FRC is working with Harbor Homes, the non-profit organization that provides affordable housing to low income, homeless, and disabled veterans, helping veterans from Pittsburg to Conway find housing. FRC is also working with Easter Seals, which provides services for families in the deployment cycle, and Operation Military Kids.
Other agencies represented included: Harbor Home, the Coos County Sheriff's office, NH National Guard, Bridge House Shelter, and the Vet to Vet Peer Support Group.
The N.H. North Country Veterans Committee has put together a publication listing support and services available to veterans. It is available at the Berlin Veterans Center, located on Route 16 or by calling 752-2571.