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Southwestern Pa. Veterans Pose Questions To New Veterans Affairs Secretary Who Promises Action

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- This region is home to over 230,000 veterans, many of whom have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

When KDKA political editor Jon Delano had the opportunity to interview the new secretary of Veterans Affairs, he reached out to the Veterans Breakfast Club to ask local veterans for questions he could ask on their behalf to the secretary.

"What concerns do veterans have about the VA?," Todd Pastino, executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club, asked veterans on the Zoom call this Wednesday.

The veterans had lots of opinions and not all were negative.

"I think you should compliment them on the way they handled the vaccines for veterans. I think it was just a fantastic effort," said Jim Roberts of Forest Hills.

Denis McDonough
(Photo Credit: KDKA)

That was great, but Denis McDonough, the new secretary, says he needs the $17 billion in President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan now awaiting Senate approval to complete the mission.

"A big chunk of that – $13.5 billion — is for health care," said McDonough.

Veterans say the pandemic took a toll on health care.

"A lot of therapeutic type appointments were canceled," said Carl Curtis of Baden.

McDonough agreed.

"Nineteen million appointments were changed or delayed. That means deferred care," said the secretary.

WATCH: Full Interview

Through telemedicine and in-person appointments, the VA hopes to restore that care. Another ongoing concern is processing claims filed by local veterans.

"When you submit a claim for a service-connected disability, it took me from 1980 to 2012," says John DeLallo of Bethel Park.

"I developed Type 2 diabetes, submitted my Agent Orange claim, which got rejected three times, and I couldn't understand," said Bob Mizwa of Oakdale.

McDonough promised action.

"We now have a backlog that resulted because of the pandemic of about 210,000 claims. Those are not claims per se. Those are veterans -- 210,000 veterans who have waited too long to get their benefits," said the secretary.

Another issue that bothers local veterans?

"I can't remember ever having a VA briefing," adds Jeff Witherel of Woodbridge VA.

McDonough acknowledges the problem, and he hopes upon discharge every service member will get needed VA information.

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