La. vets chief has gripes for VA

The state veterans affairs chief says he wants to bend the ear of Eric Shinseki when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs secretary visits New Orleans on Thursday.

“He wants to pretend everything is fine. I want to tell him it’s not,” said David LaCerte, the interim secretary of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs.

He said Wednesday he wants to speak on behalf of the 320,000 military veterans who live in Louisiana on several issues, including what’s the new estimated opening date for the New Orleans VA Hospital since federal accountants said the project is now 14 months behind schedule.

LeCerte said he had monitored Shinseki’s travels and noticed that the main message was about the federal government’s efforts to address the backlog for veterans’ claims benefits.

Despite some progress, LeCerte said, the New Orleans Regional Office still takes 525 to 636 days, on average, to process first-time claims for benefits.

“In spite of promises made to the contrary, this is the harsh reality my fellow Louisiana veterans face. The system continues to fail them; to simply say this is unacceptable does not do it justice,” LeCerte said, reading from a letter he plans to give Shinseki. Louisiana veterans are waiting three to five years to have their appeals addressed.

Also, LeCerte said, he would like the federal Veterans Affairs agency to address problems with VA Outpatient clinics in Lafayette and Lakes Charles that provide primary care medical services to 66,605 Louisiana veterans a year.

Because of changes made in the contracts, the lease for the building where the Lafayette clinic is located is set to expire the week of Nov. 11, which is Veterans Day.

The federal agency has not developed any contingency plans and doesn’t appear to be interested in developing any, he said.

“They don’t have the legal authority to extend that lease, so legally it should expire. Practically, will that happen? I don’t think anyone knows,” LeCerte said Wednesday. “But we need to act.”

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, was scheduled to meet with veterans in Acadiana on Wednesday night to discuss alternatives.

LeCerte said he also hopes to get some sort of update on the progress toward completion of the New Orleans VA Hospital. Shinseki is visiting New Orleans on the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina striking southeast Louisiana. The VA hospital has been closed since the hurricane hit.

Costing more than a billion dollars, the complex would restore a completely integrated health system for former military men and women across the Gulf Coast. It was set to open near the end of 2014.

But a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated that the project is nearly 50 percent over budget and 14 months behind on its construction.

“We’ve heard nothing in the way of meaningful status updates,” LeCerte said, adding that he would ask Shinseki to address the issue. “I mean, it’s been eight years.”