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Local veteran services, nonprofits expand to meet growing demand

Surge in population signals need for employment, specialized health care resources in community

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After serving as a Marine in the Vietnam War, Tomball resident Bill Schaffer has made a career out of helping the growing number of veterans who are in need of specialized health care and employment resources.

Schaffer, who works as the commander of the Tomball Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 2427 and as a liaison between the post and the Tomball Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic, is one of more than 8,000 veterans who live in the Hockley, Tomball and Magnolia area, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

New local health care providers and nonprofit organizations have been established to cater to the needs of the expanding veteran population.

From opening day in October 2013 to August 2015, the Tomball VA Outpatient Clinic has doubled its staff from 34 to 68 employees. In Magnolia, nonprofit organization Texans United for Freedom Foundation, or TUFF, has organized an inaugural community barbecue event, Cooking for Courage, to be held Nov. 13-14 at Magnolia’s Unity Park to honor veterans and provide assistance with VA paperwork.

“Vietnam [War] veterans are aging and have a lot of health needs, and then we have a lot of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, including many of them from multiple deployments,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands. “Many have combat injuries and disabilities [as a result]. For all our veterans have sacrificed for us, the least we can do is provide health care.”

Additional VA services

The Tomball VA Outpatient Clinic has grown to serve an estimated 9,800 patients this year, making it one of the largest VA clinics in the Greater Houston area, said Maureen Dyman, communications director for the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in downtown Houston.

The clinic’s auditory and optometry services are in high demand, Dyman said. In addition, work is underway to develop a laboratory that will allow clinic staff to process patient samples on-site instead of sending them to the medical center downtown, she said.

“Our goal is to provide as much of [veterans] care as close to home as possible,” Dyman said.

The Tomball clinic has been a big improvement for local veterans who no longer have to make the trip to Houston for VA outpatient services, Schaffer said.

“We’ve not had any problems with the clinic at all,” Schaffer said. “Out here, [the doctors and administrators] do a great job, and I’m very happy with them. The parking [lot] is always really easy to get into and out of, and that was a main issue with the [downtown] hospital, but this is perfect right here.”

Earlier this year, the clinic expanded its medical services to offer women’s health care and more primary care physicians. The clinic also works in conjunction with the Tomball VFW Post to transport veterans for doctor’s visits and assist in paperwork and disability claims, according to Schaffer.

“Vietnam [War] veterans are aging and have a lot of health needs, and then we have a lot of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, including many of them from multiple deployments. Many have combat injuries and disabilities [as a result]. For all our veterans have sacrificed for us, the least we can do is provide health care.”

—Kevin Brady, U.S. Rep., R-The Woodlands

“We have a couple of people who work and help [veterans] get their forms filled out so they can get their disabilities addressed,” Schaffer said. “So this is a big resource for veterans.”

Health care challenges

In an effort to aid veterans, Brady supported legislation this session, such as House Resolution 3236, to improve health care options for veterans. The bill, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on July 31, repeals a portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that required veterans to enroll in workplace health care in addition to TriCare through the VA office and waives wait times for veterans at VA clinics.

In addition, service expansions will be critical to meet continued dramatic changes in the area’s veteran population, Brady said. Services will need to adapt to the changing needs of younger and older veterans, he said. By 2043, the population of Gulf War veterans in the U.S. is expected to account for 60 percent of the living veteran population, according to projections from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics.

At the VFW Post in Tomball, Schaffer said member demographics have changed in recent years. New members now require a different set of health resources, including mental health care and counseling services, he said.

“We have a lot of young vets here at the VFW,” Schaffer said. “It wasn’t always like that, but it’s slowly turning that way.”

In addition to physical health care, another big issue for veterans is mental health care. An estimated 22 veterans and active military members in the U.S. commit suicide each day as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder and related mental health issues, Brady said.

“There are a lot of mental health challenges,” he said. “Congress is really focused on fighting to get funding for resources for mental health professionals and trying to find a better way to invite those who are struggling to get that help before it’s too late.”

Local resources

In Texas, the unemployment rate for veterans has risen from 5.3 percent in 2009 to 7.3 percent in 2013, according to 2010 U.S. census data, signaling the need for veteran assistance in additional areas beyond health care.

Cypress-based nonprofit organization Hero and Friend serves veterans in the Tomball area by working to compile a comprehensive list of federal and local resources for employment, health services and counseling for veterans, founder Kay M. Smith said. The resource guide is expected to be available by the end of the year, she said.

One of the biggest challenges for returning veterans is finding a career that fits skills developed through military training instead of settling for an entry-level job, Smith said. Hero and Friend was founded in October to help connect veterans with mentors and resources close to home.

“The resources are there, but nobody really knows how to obtain them. Part of what we’re doing is bringing that awareness out so that people can [know] what programs are there for them.”

—Greg Holcombe, vice president of Texans United for Freedom Foundation

“We like to work with veterans to find what their interests are [instead of] trying to pigeonhole them and shove them into something,” Smith said. “The worst thing to do at this point, with everything they’ve gone through, is to try and just put them in a job [that they won’t enjoy].”

In Magnolia, TUFF is also working to help veterans learn about available local resources. The organization was founded in April to benefit the nearly 4,000 veteran residents living in the area.

“The resources are there, but nobody really knows how to obtain them,” TUFF Vice President Greg Holcombe said. “Part of what we’re doing is bringing that awareness out so that people can [know] what programs are there for them.”

Holcombe said TUFF plans to expand the organization in the future to help benefit first responders, firefighters and police officers.

“[TUFF has] been set up to support veterans along with first responders and other people who served to protect the citizens of the United States,” he said.

Assistance from nonprofit organizations and the community is important when it comes to helping the veteran population, but even with recent increases in support, there is always room for improvement, Schaffer said.

“We have a lot of [events and fundraisers] that the community takes part in,” he said. “[But] you can always do more.”

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