Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

September 14, 2012

Clinic in Mercer: Area veterans deserve an answer

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— What do veterans in Mercer and McDowell counties have to do to get an answer from the Veterans Administration and their elected representatives in Washington regarding a long-requested veterans clinic for Mercer County?

Area veterans — led by veterans advocate Al Hancock — have been fighting for years to get an urgently needed veterans clinic in Mercer County. But they still can’t get an answer from Washington or the Veterans Administration.

It’s not like there isn’t a site available in Mercer County for a veterans clinic. The administration of Princeton Community Hospital has offered an entire unused section of the hospital for a local veterans clinic, and the original design plans for the new Mercer County Health Department also included space for a veterans clinic.

However, during a meeting last week with veterans in Princeton, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called his Washington office, and spoke with his operations chief Mara Boggs. He asked her to call the Veterans Administration and request an update on the status of the Mercer County clinic. Boggs called back a short time later, and reported that VA officials said they have no current plans for a Mercer County clinic.

What kind of message does that send to veterans like Hancock who have been fighting so long and hard for a local clinic? Instead, VA officials told Manchin’s staffer that they are simply looking at options to address local health care needs — such as arranging more frequent visits of a mobile clinic. That’s not what local veterans have been fighting for. Why the VA can’t commit to a local clinic in Mercer County is baffling.

Lawmakers, including Manchin and U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., say they will continue to fight for a Mercer County clinic. And we would expect nothing less from our elected representatives. U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., should also be leading this fight.

“I remain concerned about the long travel times for veterans in Mercer County and continue to support the establishment of a local VA clinic,” Rahall said last week. “I have repeatedly conveyed the frustrations expressed by our veterans and am pressing Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Eric) Shinseki and other VA officials for a solution. I think we have made some headway at getting the VA to understand the special needs of veterans living in Mercer County.”

For his part, Hancock remains undeterred.

“I had been told years ago there were no plans for a clinic in Mercer County, which is what I have kept fighting for,” Hancock said. “I am confident we will get a clinic one day. I have heard before there are no plans for a clinic, which is why I keep pushing. They have never made a concrete promise there would be a clinic or said there were definite plans for one. This is why we have to keep fighting.”

We agree. And we believe local veterans deserve an answer from the VA. If a clinic is not being considered for Mercer County, then why? Why is the VA not listening to the plea of our veterans? Is the opposition to a Mercer County project coming from the Beckley Veteran’s Administration Hospital? If not, then why can’t a clinic be established at Princeton Community Hospital, which is willing and ready to help meet the needs of local veterans?

So what is the hold up? Why can’t we get a detailed explanation from the VA on why veterans living in the deep south counties don’t deserve a clinic of their own?

We’re waiting on an answer.