U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke couldn't have raised expectations any higher Saturday when he told area veterans that he wants the quality of their care -- ranked worst in the country in 2009 -- to be the nation's best.
More than 200 veterans turned out for O'Rourke's first quarterly town-hall meeting dedicated exclusively to veterans' affairs. During a question-and answer session, it seemed that most had a problem accessing benefits.
O'Rourke, a Democrat who took office in January, introduced his staff and John Mendoza, John Mendoza, director of the El Paso VA Health Care System.
"We have an opportunity to offer the veterans of El Paso a fresh start and deliver better service," O'Rourke said.
The audience seemed receptive, but skeptical.
"We've heard all this before -- rhetoric and promises -- but nothing gets done," said Dan Salazar. "We want action."
O'Rourke got at least preliminary action on one issue of concern to local veterans.
Casa Vida, the Central El Paso facility where Saturday's session was conducted, was set up last year to house as many as 90 homeless veterans. But then it lost a Department of Veterans Affairs contract and more than $1 million in grants through a process that several in Saturday's audience called political.
O'Rourke said the services of the shelter clearly were needed. He said the number of homeless veterans in El Paso was officially estimated to be 200.
"Everybody I talk to says this
is a gross underestimate," O'Rourke said.
He brought VA contracting officers to meet with shelter officials to discuss why its contract was terminated and what could be done to renew the contract.
O'Rourke said he hoped the contract would be renewed in the spring or early summer.
The congressman also said he wants to improve mental-health care for area veterans, do a better job in his office of helping vets cut through the bureaucratic tangle of the VA, help vets leaving active duty obtain civilian credentials for skills they learned in the military, and improve the upkeep of Fort Bliss National Cemetery.
He said he wanted to come up with ways to measure his success in meeting those goals so he and veterans officials can be held accountable.
O'Rourke said he and others in Congress also are pushing legislation to fix what is perhaps the biggest problem facing American veterans -- the gargantuan backlog of disability claims.
The number has jumped from 300,000 claims when President Barack Obama took office to more than 1 million currently -- despite the addition of thousands of federal employees to help process claims.
O'Rourke said the spike was the result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also because Vietnam vets are reaching the age in which more are claiming service-related disabilities.
A similar spike occurred in 1969, as World War II veterans reached that age, O'Rourke said.
Legislation is planned that would treat benefit claims the same way the IRS treats tax returns -- the government would assume they're legitimate and pay them while randomly auditing a percentage to guard against fraud.
"If we can trust you to represent out country and put your life on the line, we can trust to file a benefit claim," O'Rourke said.
As veterans talked about issues they were having with the VA, O'Rourke's staff and the VA were taking down their information.
O'Rourke said he trusted Mendoza and his staff to handle the problems, but he wanted to make sure the problems didn't fall through the cracks.
Veterans seemed pleased after the session.
"I'm satisfied," said John Steele, who served in the Army from 1989 to 2006. "I think he's going to a lot better job than (former U.S. Rep. Silvestre) Reyes did."
Steele said he made a claim to the VA that went unaddressed for two years.
He said he couldn't get Reyes' staff to help him with it.
Steele said he now hopes O'Rourke will be able to solve his situation.
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