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The VA was fully funded in the debt ceiling bill. Is that good news in Wilkes-Barre?

Op-ed by Treasurer Stacy Garrity - The bipartisan debt ceiling legislation passed by Congress last week included full funding for veterans’ health care. That sounds like great news for the brave men and women who fought for the freedoms that we all enjoy today – and, for the most part, it is.

But for many veterans receiving care at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center, the situation remains grim.

Despite constant and ongoing pleas from families, selfless volunteers and those who support our veterans, the leadership of the Wilkes-Barre VA has refused to update its oppressive pandemic policies. What exactly does that mean? Here are a few facts:

FACT: The Wilkes-Barre VA has not organized an off-site recreational outing since March 2020 – that’s three years and three months ago! Meanwhile, nursing homes and our state-run veterans’ homes resumed similar recreational outings more than a year ago. The VA says that it’s working to schedule outings… but our veterans are still waiting.

FACT: Veterans being treated in the Substance Abuse Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program Unit have not been able to see any visitors since March 2020. Many of these veterans suffer from PTSD, making them even more vulnerable than most to the devastating effects of loneliness. Not allowing visitors is inhumane and removes a crucial support – friends and family.

FACT: Family members and friends wanting to visit other residents at the Wilkes-Barre VA are still required to make an appointment. This makes spontaneous visits absolutely impossible – and it imposes a completely unnecessary barrier to visiting. The Wilkes-Barre VA serves 18 counties in Pennsylvania and one in New York. Many families travel several hours – one way – to get to the VA. The goal should be to make visiting easier, not harder.

FACT: The support group for Vietnam veterans, which included many with PTSD, has not met since March 2020. A veteran who was part of this support group reached out to me. What he had to report was nothing less than tragic. He told me that three members of his group have died by suicide since the meetings stopped. Pennsylvania lost 240 veterans to suicide in 2020 alone. We know veteran suicide rates are strikingly higher than for non-veterans, and the VA must bring back this support group now.

The leadership at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center certainly cannot claim to be ignorant of these facts.

On August 3, 2022, a “Free Our Veterans” rally was held at the facility to raise awareness about the living conditions there.

Also in August 2022, papers across the state published an op-ed I authored decrying the conditions at the Wilkes-Barre VA, “where elderly and ailing vets have been treated more like prisoners of war than heroes worthy of the freedoms they guarded.”

On October 5, 2022, I wrote to President Joe Biden and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough explaining the situation and urging them to update the policies and guidance given to federal VA facilities. The response felt entirely disinterested and promised no change at all.

Last month, Congressman Matt Cartwright and I sent a joint letter to the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center’s Director, Russell Lloyd, in the hopes that he might take action. His response – and this is hard to believe – was even more tepid than the one from Secretary McDonough. It even lifted a paragraph from McDonough’s letter, word for word.

Our President himself said the pandemic was over in September 2022, and the national emergency officially ended on May 11, 2023. Now, nearly a month has passed with no evidence of the Wilkes-Barre VA being willing to update its egregious policies to reflect reality.

Even in the best circumstances, our ailing and elderly heroes struggle to maintain their connection with the wider world – a world they fought to protect – and to maintain their dignity as time takes its toll. They shouldn’t be forced to spend a second longer in a bureaucratic form of solitary confinement.

It’s way past time to show true compassion. If Director Lloyd is not up to the task, perhaps he should step aside and make room for someone who will provide dignity and respect to our brave heroes – instead of institutionalizing them.

In a few weeks Americans will celebrate our nation’s independence, the birth of our democracy. But how can anyone really celebrate when our family, friends and neighbors who have kept us safe and free remain under lock and key? They fought for us, and we must fight for them.

This op-ed was originally published by The Citizens’ Voice on June 11, 2023.

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