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Van Drew-Connors Head Bipartisan Effort To Aid Veterans In Need In South Jersey

Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May and Cumberland) speaks at a news conference to Urge Horizon and Children’s Hospital to Come to Agreement.

Senators Joined by Assemblymen Rumpf, Van Pelt, Albano, Milam, and Amodeo

TRENTON – Expressing the belief that we have to do better on behalf of the military veterans that have served our country, Senators Jeff Van Drew and Christopher Connors today announced bipartisan efforts to push for a South Jersey health care facility to meet the unique health care needs of the region’s military veterans.

“This gathering of state and federal legislators to discuss this important issue along with representatives from AtlantiCare and Kessler is the first real progress on this issue in over 4 years,” said Robert E. McNulty Sr., an Atlantic County veterans advocate and junior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3361. “That it is being done in a bipartisan fashion shows our legislators are concerned with the veteran community.”

On Friday, both lawmakers held a stakeholders’ meeting at the recently closed Kessler Hospital in Hammonton, with representatives from the federal Veterans’ Administration (VA), federal, state and local elected officials, local veterans’ groups and local health care agencies to discuss the need for a veterans’ health care facility in southern New Jersey.

“The brave men and women who have fought on our behalf around the world deserve a state-of-the-art regional health care facility to turn to in their own time of need,” said Senator Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic. “This effort isn’t about political ideologies or personal beliefs about the ongoing conflict in Iraq, but rather about giving something back to those people who’ve given so much for our nation. With South Jersey’s large number of military veterans, including a large number who’ve recently completed their military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s time we had our own VA health care center in the region.”

“Recently I, along with my 9th District Assembly colleagues Brian Rumpf and Dan Van Pelt, held a veterans’ roundtable in Ocean County, during which improving access to health care for veterans in South Jersey was a major point of discussion,” said Senator Connors, R-Ocean, Burlington and Atlantic. “Toward that end, we fully support a thorough and comprehensive analysis of every viable means of bringing quality medical services closer to those individuals who served our country in the Armed Forces.”

The Senators noted that military veterans living in southern New Jersey are many times forced to travel to veterans’ hospitals in Wilmington, Philadelphia or North Jersey to get the sort of medical treatment they need. While the VA has established small clinics in Ventnor, Cape May and Vineland, these facilities are only equipped to perform certain types of outpatient medical services, and are often overwhelmed by the large number of veterans seeking care. The lawmakers are asking that the VA look into establishing a health care facility at the former Kessler Hospital site – which is currently being used as an emergency care clinic by AtlantiCare – in order to create a regional health care center to address the medical needs of the region’s large veteran population.

“The lack of a regional, comprehensive health care facility is a major inconvenience to the veterans who call South Jersey home,” said Senator Van Drew. “Many of these folks have to travel up to an hour and a half to visit a VA hospital in North Jersey or out-of-State in order to receive the health care benefits they’ve earned through their service to our country. A state-of-the-art South Jersey care center is long past overdue for those local residents who have sacrificed so much to guarantee our freedom and protect us from tyranny abroad.”

While many of the policy-makers in attendance agreed on the need for a South Jersey veterans’ health care facility, representatives from the Philadelphia VA Medical Center – which receives a number of patients from the South Jersey region – objected, citing veterans’ statistics for the region which were mostly outdated or flawed. Senators Van Drew and Connors noted that a more thorough and updated statistical analysis is needed for the region, pointing out that the current statistics do not take into account the large number of returning soldiers based in South Jersey, and in some cases, veterans are misclassified, with some Ocean County veterans being placed near East Orange, New Jersey.

“Being forced to travel long distances in order to receive health care services continues to have a negative impact on the quality-of-life for veterans living in this part of the State, especially for those individuals who require extensive medical treatment,” said Senator Connors. “Our Delegation will continue to work closely with officials at our levels of government to address this very serious issue that affects a great portion of the veterans living in our State.”

“With the change in demographics, the influx of retired veterans into southern New Jersey communities, the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the nature of injuries sustained by those returning from combat, the long-overdue need to address the delivery of health care for our women veterans, the need to address mental issues, including Post Traumatic Stress and the suicide rate, the need for extended long-term care for aging veterans and the need to move beyond what at the turn of the century was considered sufficient support for veterans towards what we now know is required; the concept of establishing a ‘Health Care Center Facilities’ (HCCF) program at the Kessler site in Hammonton is warranted,” said Mr. McNulty.

The lawmakers said they would continue meeting with local, state and federal stakeholders in order to push the VA to at least research the possible need for a veterans’ health care facility in South Jersey.