While two high-ranking members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Veterans Affairs Committee offered an update on their work to a group of veterans and citizens at a town hall meeting Saturday at the La Salle VFW, the conversation also touched on rural health care issues.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, a member of the committee, and committee Chairman U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, offered the group insight into not only the benefits and health care available to veterans, but addressed care in an uncertain facility situation in the Illinois Valley, with the sudden closure of Peru’s hospital and the announced upcoming closure of Spring Valley’s hospital, along with a depleted work force in health care in rural America.
Underwood said she is devoted to preserving quality and expedient hospital access in the area, including the Illinois Veterans Home in La Salle. A hospital in Peru is expected to reopen after being acquired by OSF Healthcare.
“One consequence of the closure that we’ve heard from local firefighters is longer ambulance response times in emergencies, not only in Peru but in surrounding communities,” Underwood said. “We are working to secure Community Project Funding for the city of Ottawa to construct a new station for fire responders to cover gaps in response times and make sure the fire and ambulance services in Ottawa can reach people quickly and safely.”
“Once one ambulance goes out of service, that destabilizes because they have to travel so far to get to a hospital. There are other communities that are being called in, but they’re just not enough … This is a whole system that needs reinforcement and we’re committed to help making that happen.”
Underwood, a registered nurse who first ran for Congress in 2018 on a platform of protecting and expanding affordable health care, worked with Takano to pass the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, which provides an expansion of benefits and services for veterans exposed to toxic substances among the nation’s 3.5 million past service people. She also is devoting her efforts to providing access to mental health and maternity service for vets,
“My own personal opinion, I don’t see how we’re going to get the private sector to come in to communities like this. We need to find community and frankly, government solutions on how to get doctors into rural areas.”— U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-California
Takano said to the group, which included representatives of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, the La Salle County Veterans Assistance Commission, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Hines VA Hospital, that hundreds of millions of dollars have been provided to state-run VA homes. Those homes, however, in some cases are running into the same staffing issues all rural medical entities are seeing.
“Rural areas losing hospitals is a huge issue,” Takano said. “My own personal opinion, I don’t see how we’re going to get the private sector to come in to communities like this. We need to find community and, frankly, government solutions on how to get doctors into rural areas. That’s going to be a question we answer through some federal effort. … Part of the solution is how do we empower people to take care of people at home, how do we provide home health care workers.
“We’re going to need to provide solutions for all Americans, not just veterans … to increase the medical workforce across the country generally. We’re facing staffing challenges at the VA, but the private sector health care is facing those same challenges, and we need to unite Americans around a whole new generation of providers into the system.”
Underwood also said the House committee is looking into ways to help veterans service organizations such as the VFW and American Legion that are struggling to keep their facilities open in a time of declining membership and rising maintenance costs.
“Town hall meetings are so important,” said Underwood, who has hosted more than 40 town halls with the public, “because it’s so valuable for the community to understand what we’re working on, to come in and ask questions.”
To check eligibility for the PACT Act, call the VA hotline at 800-698-2411, visit va.gov/PACT or contact a recognized veterans service organization.