Veterans Secretary Pushing For More Resources in Southern Maryland

By Guy Leonard, County Times

LEONARDTOWN, Md. (April 3, 2008)—Veterans returning from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan have a tougher time in getting health services if they live in rural areas like St. Mary’s County and jurisdictions on the Eastern Shore, said James Adkins Secretary of the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs; but he hopes things are going to change soon.

Adkins met with the St. Mary’s County Board of County Commissioners Tuesday to explain what Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) administration is going to do to aid veterans in more remote locales, since its often difficult for them to get benefits, particularly regarding mental health, that are centered in places like Baltimore.

“We’re concerned that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may not have access to the mental health services they need,” Adkins told the commissioners.

Adkins said that in Maryland as a whole only 44 percent of veterans actually apply for the benefits they are entitled to, mostly because they cannot find an advocate in the bureaucracy who can help them through the process.

Adkins said that his proposed budget for his office would add four new advocates for claims assistance throughout the state; one of those he wants to put at Charlotte Hall Veterans Home to assist returning servicemen and women.

Another effort the O’Malley administration was pushing was for $3.5 million as part of a “safety net” for veterans’ health services in rural Maryland. The money would help set up information systems that veterans could use to learn more quickly about the benefits afforded them.

And if they could leave rural areas to get needed healthcare from the Veterans Administration they could get the care from local providers, Adkins said of the plan.

“The key is to get them the help they need,” Adkins said.

Many times veterans simply did not know what benefits were rightfully theirs, Adkins said, and therefore did not apply for them in time.

“In Maryland they try to do it without a technical advocate,” Adkins said. “Many times military people don’t ask for much.”

Organizations like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars were very helpful in informing veterans, Adkins said, but of the 435,000 veterans in Maryland only about 100,000 belong to such an organization, he said.

One of the main mental health concerns for returning veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder, often did not show its presence sometimes until years had passed.

Getting them in the system quickly would help them get services when they were needed most.

“Resources are much more lacking in the rural areas,” said Commissioner Thomas Mattingly (D-Leonardtown) “A lot of times they come back and fail to recognize their problems.”

Capt. Rebecca McCormick-Boyle, head of the health clinic at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, said the number of veterans suffering from the condition was not overwhelming yet, but finding people to assist them in the military was difficult.

“Mental health professionals are scare in the private sector, they’re scarce in the military, too,” McCormick-Boyle said. “Our issue is to be vigilant and be accessible to people when they need help.”

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