Columbia Memorial Health (1) Careers

Gary Flaherty helps vets navigate VA

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HUDSON–With the current volatile state of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, “the only change right now is that it’s taking longer to process veterans’ claims,” reported Gary Flaherty, executive director of the Columbia County Veterans Service Department, in a phone interview earlier this month.

In the interview he said bills significant to veterans are making their way through Congress and for a while the time it took for the VA to process a veteran’s application for benefits sped up. But now application processing has slowed down again, Mr. Flaherty observed. In addition to uncertainty at the Department of Veterans Affairs, he surmised another possible reason for the “increase in backlogs”–an increase in applicants.

Upon discharge from the military, each veteran is supposed to receive a packet explaining the benefits for which the veteran is eligible. Mr. Flaherty, who is a veteran, said that how this information is presented and how much emphasis it gets “depends on the unit” a veteran was with at time of his or her discharge. And to get the benefits, a veteran must sign up with the VA and get in its system.

He said he often encounters veterans in crisis who have not signed up with the VA yet. The reasons vary. A man who was wounded three times in Korea told Mr. Flaherty that he went to the VA for help in the 1950s where he said he was told: Your three purple hearts don’t count for anything, and had not gone near the VA since.

Mr. Flaherty also said that one week this spring, several veterans entered hospice care, and some were not in the VA system.

To get more veterans securely signed up with the VA before a medical crisis might occur, Mr. Flaherty tries to sign them up as soon as he finds out about them. Every year, he gets a list of everybody in a Columbia County Zip code who has been discharged from the military that year and he mails the discharged individuals information about VA services, suggesting that they sign up soon. In addition, he goes to meetings and gatherings of groups like Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and senior citizens. He also has a table at state Senator Kathy Marchione’s annual Golden Gathering at Columbia Greene Community College.

On the national scale Mr. Flaherty mentioned that among the significant bills moving through Congress is one called “Blue Water,” which would make sailors who though they never set foot on the soil of Viet Nam sailed close enough to it in to be exposed to Agent Orange, making these veterans eligible for Agent Orange compensation.

In other comments, Mr. Flaherty said:

• The VA hospital in Albany is “one of the best”

• Although most of his clients are Columbia County residents, he has also helped veterans from Dutchess and Greene counties and Massachusetts

• He would “rather have someone in rehab with the VA than in jail.”

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