Veterans young and old packed the Sag Harbor American Legion meeting room on Monday night and waited for representatives from the Northport Veterans Hospital to arrive. A few elderly veterans of World War II straightened their American Legion caps atop their heads as they chatted with fellow retired servicemen.
Tony Lambert, vice-chair of the Bridgehampton Citizen’s Advisory Committee and an Iraq war veteran, stood in the back of the room, outfitted in a baseball cap and sweatshirt, swapping stories with a former Marine. Lambert heard of the meeting on WLNG. He stopped by hoping to get his veterans health care network card renewed.
Christopher Stone, of Sag Harbor, came to see if his Veterans Administration benefits would cover some of his dependents’ prescription needs. Mark Wilson, a local gardener and former Navy officer, is currently uninsured and came to inquire about his eligibility for VA benefits.
Marge O’Malley, a community outreach coordinator for the Northport hospital, met individually with every veteran at the meeting. Overall, she said many attendees came to learn if they were eligible for any benefits at all. According to O’Malley, many veterans fail to realize they are eligible for benefits or have received misinformation on eligibility requirements. Other veterans believe they earn too much to qualify for benefits, since there is an income cap of $49,000 a year. With many former veterans losing their jobs or experiencing pay cuts, O’Malley said more veterans are eligible for benefits than before.
This is the case for Wilson. He was previously insured through his wife, but recently went through a divorce. Wilson’s gardening work has been scaled back lately. With less income coming in, he cannot afford even the cheapest health insurance plans, which cost between $300 to $500 a month.
Although O’Mally informed Wilson he is most likely eligible for benefits, a certain part of him believes it is wrong to accept this aid.
“It is a conflict for me … I feel like the benefits should be reserved for the guys who fought in World War II and Korea and Iraq, to the people who were seriously afflicted by wars. I sort of feel like this is something I should channel on my own,” said Wilson, who served in the Navy from 1976 to 1980 when the country wasn’t engaged in active conflicts.
Lambert is already enrolled in the VA health benefits program, but told O’Malley it is difficult for him to travel to Northport for general check-ups, eye exams and prescription pick ups. He is currently employed full time with the Bridgehampton Post Office, but reported it is still a struggle to cover his family’s monthly expenses. He added it is inconvenient to take a day off work to visit Northport’s satellite clinic in Westhampton.
O’Malley informed Lambert that the Northport VA Hospital will establish a full service health care and mental health clinic in Riverhead within the coming year. The clinic will be funded in part by the county and will serve the veterans of Suffolk County. The services provided at the clinic will include psychiatry support, optometry appointments, outpatient services and a pharmacy.
O’Malley reported many Long Island veterans use the VA health benefits to supplement their current health insurance plans, especially for senior veterans who are enrolled in Medicare. At the hospital’s pharmacy, veterans receive significantly discounted rates on their monthly prescriptions. However, these prescriptions must be written by VA doctors, instead of their primary practitioners.
Martin Knab, the first vice commander of the Sag Harbor American Legion, uses his VA health benefits for second opinions from other doctors. Knab already has an insurance plan, which covers himself and his family, but this plan doesn’t pay for second opinions on a diagnosis.
Knab feels fortunate to have another form of health insurance, especially when he sees many local veterans becoming uninsured as they are laid off.
“There are other people in our community who could use these benefits a lot more than me. A lot of veterans have their own businesses and are self-employed or they are hired by big contractors and were laid off. [Most of the time] they don’t have insurance. So when something happens and they end up in the hospital they are facing huge debts,” said Knab.
Helping out struggling local veterans was one reason Knab asked O’Malley to visit the Sag Harbor American Legion.
These are the types of veterans O’Malley hopes to specifically reach out to and help. According to O’Malley, only eleven percent of veterans on Long Island enroll in the VA health benefits program. She will soon send out a letter to more than 2,000 veterans on Long Island informing them, if their income has decreased in the last year, they could be eligible for VA benefits.
Although Northport hospital representatives continue to visit veteran organizations throughout Long Island, Knab believes the hospital does a good job in helping veterans, but the East End veteran community is still underserved because there isn’t a clinic nearby.
“They do a superb job, for they job they do; but there still isn’t a facility available for vets on the East End,” said Knab. Though Knab hopes this problem will be solved when the Riverhead clinic is established.
To learn more about VA benefits or the VA hospital in Northport visit http://www.northport.va.gov/
Above: Vets learn about their eligibility for VA benefits during one-on-one sessions with representatives of the Northport Veterans Hospital.