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Push to add veterans’ services at medical center

‘Step in the right direction,’ commander says

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For years, the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency’s more than 90 volunteers drove veterans to facilities like the Veterans Affairs hospital in Northport to receive specialized care, because services for veterans are limited in Nassau County.

But agency officials hope that President Biden’s proposed $2.7 trillion American Jobs Plan will allow veterans to access expanded services in their own county.

The county’s only safety-net hospital, Nassau University Medical Center, houses the VSA. But the services the hospital offers veterans are limited.

“That’s why I have asked Sen. Charles Schumer to include $85 million in the upcoming federal infrastructure bills to be used right here, at NUMC,” Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said outside the hospital on April 8, where she was joined by veterans, state officials and medical personnel. “It’s really important that we have something here and that we use the infrastructure that we have.”

The potential funding would be used to renovate the facilities at NUMC to include veterans’ in-patient services and specialized care, and to refurbish and upgrade unoccupied apartments on campus to create the county’s first veterans’ village.

“We would also like to use this money to establish a veterans’ adult day health care program by expanding services which are currently offered only at Stony Brook University Hospital,” Curran said. “So we want to put that in a restored building right here on this East Meadow campus.”

In addition to Schumer, Curran said, she had also contacted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Reps. Tom Suozzi, Kathleen Rice and Andrew Garbarino about “securing a healthier future for Nassau’s vets.” “It’s important for veterans, and it’s also important for the fundamental mission of NUMC as Nassau County’s only safety-net hospital,” she said. “These resources would help NUMC do what it does best: offer services to the vulnerable in our community who do not have an easy time accessing health care.”

Dr. Anthony Boutin, the hospital’s president and chief medical officer, said that a plan to expand housing and medical services on the campus had been a subject of discussion for years. “We want to be able to do more than we’re doing now,” Boutin said. “We have the space for it. The day care program has been on our minds for a long time, but we just do not have the funding to be able to do that, and if the veterans live on the campus and they need something, it’s right here. They don’t have to go far. There’s also a pantry. So if they don’t have food, it’s right here.”

State Senators Kevin Thomas and John Brooks said they stood with the county executive in requesting the federal funding. “Like so many other hardworking Americans, our veterans have been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Thomas said. “Countless veterans have lost jobs, closed businesses and faced uncertain prospects as our state grappled with the pandemic. Our veterans answered a call to serve when our nation needed them. Now the nation must answer the call to serve our veterans.”

Pete Wenninger, commander of East Meadow American Legion Post 1082, called the funding request a step in the right direction for Nassau County veterans. “That’s a brilliant idea,” Wenninger said. “The VA is in the middle, or at least a third, into Suffolk County, and it’s a pain. Nassau County has a boatload of veterans, especially in East Meadow and Levittown, and we need to be supporting our local veterans here.”

But Wenninger said he would also like to see support for veterans’ halls on Long Island, because many are in trouble. “Veteran halls closed down just like restaurants,” he said. “They closed down just like movie theaters. Yes, we were able to open with a small percentage, but that’s not enough to pay our bills.”

When veterans come to Post 1082 to unwind, they find the electricity and cable shut off.  The post faces a commercial electricity rate of $400 per month. And when the post tried to make a complaint to the state, Wenninger said, they were told not much could be done.

“We’ll end up having no electricity, having no TV or cable, and no fun place for our veterans to meet,” he said.