Advocates for NY veterans seek help, answers amid pandemic

August 15, 2020 GMT

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Lawmakers and advocates are calling on New York to better protect the state’s estimated 800,000 veterans struggling with challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocates for veterans acknowledge New York’s estimated $14 billion revenue drop through March, but called on lawmakers Friday to protect funding for veterans from potential cuts. Legal service groups, mental health providers and veterans service providers warned that New York could lose progress made in helping veterans increasingly facing eviction, trouble accessing mental health treatment through telehealth and challenges from joblessness to hunger to social isolation.

“We have spoken with too many veterans who have lost their jobs or have had to drop out of school, too many veterans concerned about whether they will have housing next month or who have suddenly been tasked with serving as caretakers for their elderly and ailing family members,” Logan Campbell, project coordinator of the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistant Project, which helps low-income disabled veterans in New York City, said in written testimony.

James Fitzgerald, an Army veteran and deputy director of the New York City Veterans Alliance, said it took until late April for the city to organize services for veterans.

“We got referrals from both city and state veterans’ services agencies, asking us to support veterans when they could not,” Fitzgerald said in written testimony. “Veterans were getting shut-off notices on their utility bills. They could not get out to pick up food at distribution sites, so we got deliveries to hem.”

As the coronavirus took hold in New York City and elsewhere, some state-operated veteran homes were particularly hard-hit. The Department of Health reported 146 residents who had or likely had COVID-19 died in New York state veterans’ nursing homes. The state hasn’t reported how many nursing home residents died at hospitals or how many residents tested positive for COVID-19.

“There is a real concern over the veterans and the number of deaths at nursing homes,” state Sen. Patty Ritchie, a Republican who represents part of the state’s North Country abutting Lake Ontario, said Friday.

The state Department of Health didn’t provide answers Friday about how the state will better protect veterans in particular in case of another wave of infections. New state regulations require nursing homes to provide 60-day supplies of personal protective gear, but shortages of gear persist and nurses question whether the supplies will be enough to better protect patients and residents in a surge.

Several states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, have seen dozens of deaths at veterans homes where the virus took hold among vulnerable residents.

“COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on the residents at the nursing homes,” Daniel Griffin, vice president of the New York State Veterans Nursing Home Board of Visitors, said.

Griffin and others Friday called for New York to let all nursing homes, including veterans homes, offer restricted visits once their facility is COVID-free for 14 days. The current rule is 28 days.

“Once you get depressed enough from the lack of human contact, you’re just going to give up,” Griffin said. “They get their hopes up, they’re almost ready to come in, and they’re dashed again. This has got to change, it’s got to stop. We have to help these people to see their loved ones and to see their families.”

Department of Health officials didn’t respond to a question about changing the policy, which the state health commissioner has defended as protecting the most vulnerable.