PITTSFIELD — A day after the nation honored out veterans, the state's leader of veterans affairs visited the city to shift the focus back to improving a struggling veterans services system, which ranks last in New England at timeliness in seeing patients.
Secretary of Veterans' Services Francisco Urena attended a Veterans Expo at the Crowne Plaza on Thursday, along with dozens of former miliary service members and organizations who say they can provide assistance.
"It's important to thank our veterans, but it's more important to connect them with resources to achieve vet success," Urena told The Eagle.
The task has proved difficult.
Veterans Affairs Central and Western Massachusetts Healthcare System ranks 24th-worst nationally and worst in New England in average waiting time for doctor's appointments — almost 12 days. Veterans in Boston face an average wait of only three and a half days.
The Central and Western Massachusetts system serves 120,000 veterans in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties.
Indeed, some veterans in the hotel Thursday stood to share frustrations they've had in attempting to access timely services locally.
The problem, Urena said, in part stems from veterans not knowing what services they're entitled to.
"Each and every day I come across veterans that don't know who we are, don't know we have a veterans service officer in every city and town [in Massachusetts]," Urena said. "We need to keep breaking these best-kept secrets we have, and not treat veterans services as one of those."
Pittsfield Director of Veterans Services Jim Clark also spoke, encouraging veterans to visit City Hall for fast information and help as a means of closing the knowledge gap Urena referenced.
"We can have a check to you almost immediately if you qualify, versus waiting for the VA for a month or longer," Clark said. "This is the drive-thru versus a sit-down restaurant."
He added, "Come talk to us. There's all sorts of benefits available. The worst thing that can happen is we say, 'no.' "
In addition to going through local veterans services offices, Urena said veterans should always register with the VA.
"I want every veteran to apply for VA health care," Urena said. "We use them, or we lose them. If we don't have folks signing up and walking through those doors, the next generation of veterans coming home may not find the same facility as close as we have them now."
The goal, he added, is to create more interplay between local and federal assistance efforts to "identify gaps" and enhance community outreach.
"I also want to make sure that veterans have access to their local clinics or their outpatient community health center," he said. "It's important to maintain that continuity of health care."
Jim Czarnecki, of Pittsfield, who served in the Air Force for nine years, said a process of identifying more local veterans was well underway. He commended the city's veterans service office for expanding its outreach recently.
"I've been using the VSO for seven or eight years now, and it's like a different world compared to what it was," Czarnecki said. "There's a lot of veterans in Berkshire County that weren't getting the services they needed, and now it seems like they're there every day for you."
Urena also used the visit to highlight initiatives to open more veterans treatment courts in Massachusetts — which administer probation and treatment programs for ex-service members using fellow veterans — and better provide emergency housing to homeless veterans.
"We're creating a system where we identify a veteran in the first 48 hours, provide some sort of emergency housing and establish a 30-, 60-, 90-day plan that is specific for that individual to be able to transition out of that shelter to the next phase," Urena said.