By Ron VandenBoom
The National Commander of the VFW, Thomas A. Pouliot, told members of Montanas seven VFW districts Thursday that health care ranks as the number one concern facing the membership in the year 2000.
Pouliot, who is attending conventions in only five states including South Carolina, Arkansas, Maryland, Road Island, and Montana, said $17.3 billion was allocated by Congress to the Veterans Administration for hospitals and clinics for the year 2000.
This falls $3 billion (or 15 percent) short of fully funding their needs for the year 2000, Pouliot said.
He added that warnings had already gone out to VA medical facilities from Dr. Keizer, chief medical officer for the Veterans Administration to expect staff and service cuts for the coming year.
This is particularly hard on an aging number of veterans, Pouliot said.
Pouliot said all three of Montanas legislators have been contacted and have come on board in support of increased funding for the facilities, but only the Senate has so far passed any kind of increase.
Montanas State Commander, James Bertrand, agreed with Pouliot and said he has worked hard during his administration to rectify the expected shortfall.
It looks like the bill will pass, Bertrand said, but that was before Kosovo and all of that.
Theres a lot of good people that work for the VA health system, he said. And a lot of good doctors and nurses and dedicated people, but theyve got to be given the money.
Bertrand, who lives in Miles City, said distance, particularly in eastern Montana, is a real problem for veterans who need health care and that he has worked to try and help reduce the amount of travel time for veterans.
The only VA Hospital in Montana is at Fort Harrison in Helena and for veterans to travel from Miles City or Glasgow for a doctors appointment has really been tough on them, said Bertrand.
Just because you live in a remote area doesnt mean you deserve less health care, he said.
Bertrand argues that when the army needed to send men up to the front they didnt discriminate and say youre from a remote area, you dont have to go.
Bertrand and Pouliot also see the average age of VFW members rising and they recognize that bringing younger members into the organization is essential if medical facilities are going to be adequately funded to meet the ever increasing needs of an aging membership.
The biggest problem the VFW has now is getting these young guys interested, Bertrand said.
We need to make more of an effort letter writing and prodding continuous members, Pouliot added. Weve let the national organization take over recruitment; that was a mistake. We need to let the individual posts get back into the effort.
Pouliot also suggested the VFW needs to let current active duty personnel know what the organization is doing for them.
High praise was bestowed on the VFW Ladies Auxiliary.
Were very proud of our womens auxiliary in this department and throughout the United States, Pouliot said. If the truth be known, many of our programs would not be done as well without the womens auxiliary some of them may not be done at all.
The State VFW Convention will continue through Saturday in Havre.
More than 200 members had already signed in as of Thursday and, according to Post Commander Sandy McLean, more are expected.