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IN THE NEWS: Bishop: VA ignoring pleas for mental center in Ogden

December 4, 2012

By Charles F. Trentelman, Standard Examiner

OGDEN — Efforts to set up a veterans mental health center in the Top of Utah have run into a brick wall of silence from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rep. Rob Bishop's office said this week that three separate attempts stretching back to the George W. Bush administration have failed to get an Ogden center approved.

Bishop's office said the last attempt, an Aug. 23 letter directed personally to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki from Utah's entire congressional delegation, is apparently being ignored.

PDF: Click here to read the letters

"Our frustration is spread across many issues," Bishop spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said in a letter to the Standard-Examiner, "including his failure to recognize the growing need for the center, and his general failure to respond to the letter sent over three months ago.

"If Shinseki thinks Ogden is not deserving, he ought to lay it very specifically with the formula used in determining the outcome. We have not yet seen what that is if it exists and therefore appears that his failure to act is arbitrary."

Bishop's staff counsel, Steve Petersen, said the most recent letter, signed by Bishop, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Orrin Hatch, all R-Utah, hasn't been answered or acknowledged.

Petersen said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, also strongly supports the effort but couldn't be reached to sign the letter.

"The bottom line is, the delegation sent a third letter, they have not replied," Petersen said.

"We have basically, just this week, asked them to give us a response, whether it's good bad or indifferent. They basically just shut down correspondence, the administration did, just before the election."

Efforts over three days by the Standard-Examiner to contact the Veterans Administration's public affairs office, VA media spokespeople or any representative of the office of Shinseki were not successful.

Several phone messages left Wednesday and Thursday with the VA press office and spokespeople were not returned.

A veterans center is a storefront office staffed by counselors, often combat veterans themselves, to help veterans deal with mental health issues.

Utah Veterans Affairs Director Terry Schow said "they usually will rent space in a strip mall. That way, vets can just walk in," because many don't like going to a hospital.

Schow figures $300,000 a year would pay for the whole thing, staff included, and said he's frustrated that nobody seems to be able to get any answer — positive or negative — from the Veterans Administration.

Schow said veterans centers meet a critical need.

"Usually, they're staffed by combat veterans and psychologists and such. It's a good way to help avoid suicides and many of the traumas that veterans are subject to," he said.

"Bishop has a dog in this fight because, as you know, he has a position on the Armed Services Committee. Armed Services and veterans go hand in hand."

Schow said it is his understanding that there was a decision, within the last two years, to put a center in Ogden, "and then they didn't."

He said he sent letters earlier this year to people in the VA responsible for the program, got no answer and finally appealed to the congressional delegation for help.

Schow said he even talked with Shinseki the last time the Secretary of Veterans Affairs visited Utah, "and I got to know him. In fact, we chatted a little bit about a veterans center the last time he came to Utah, so I think it's on his radar."

Schow said he's frustrated that Utah only has three such centers, in Salt Lake City, Provo and St. George. Counties north of Salt Lake are home to 40,000 veterans.

Schow said he has managed to get people from the Salt Lake veterans center to work out of the George E. Wahlen Ogden Veterans Home several days a week, but that is far from being a good solution.

"And the interesting dynamic is, I understand West Virginia has eight of them, when we sit in Utah with three, and West Virginia doesn't have that many more veterans."

Petersen said he's surprised that a letter signed by Hatch and Lee is apparently being ignored.

He said a letter to Shinseki in 2010 was answered, but "he wrote back a letter saying Ogden didn't meet criteria because it's within 35 miles of Salt Lake City, and we pointed out that Baltimore is 35 miles from D.C. Would he suggest Baltimore could do without a veterans center?

"To which they have no reply."

The most recent letter asks Shinseki to reconsider the center in Ogden. "The Salt Lake Vet Center is at service capacity, resulting in veterans' inability to access and receive services in a timely manner," it states.

Coupled with long waits at the VA Medical Center's emergency room, the letter states that the veterans center situation "further imposes unacceptable deficiencies in care and service."

"These conditions are not conducive for getting veterans, many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the critical care they and their families need and deserve."

The letter was accompanied by one from then-Maj. Gen. Andrew E. Busch, commanding officer at the time of the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill Air Force Base.

"Our military personnel and families have been placed under great stress due to the heightened operations tempo and deployment tempo following the 11 September 2001 attacks," Busch writes.

"I have voiced my particular concern about suicides of base personnel, to which combat stress is a contributor. ... I strongly support the concept of bringing a new Vet Center to the Ogden/Weber area."

A third letter, from Maj. Gen. Brian L. Tarbet, who at the time was Utah Adjutant General and commander of the Utah National Guard, is similar.

"Having deployed over 8,000 Utah Guard members to combat theaters over the past 10 years, I am reminded daily of the transitional challenges many returning servicemen and women face," he wrote.

"Rarely do many days pass that some unfortunate situation is not brought to my attention concerning a current or previous Guard member that is having difficulty which can be traced to their service."

At the same time, he wrote, "I am told repeatedly that the veterans outside of the Salt Lake City metro area are told that the servicing community-based outpatient clinics are at capacity when seeking help."