About 50 residents, many of them veterans of the U.S. armed forces, used the occasion of a Wednesday evening town hall meeting with Delegate Stacey Plaskett to express dissatisfaction with the U.S. Postal Service and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
Plaskett opened the meeting by introducing participants from federal and local agencies, including Lisa Ojeda, USPS district manager for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Martin Caballero, district marketing manager.
Written questions were fielded from the audience.
The USPS officials explained that Virgin Islanders need to complete international forms because the territory was designated outside the customs zone and instead became a duty-free location in the 1900s. Mail is processed through domestic services, however, and fees are domestic services, they said.
In response to an audience question, Plaskett said she had no control over companies that refuse to ship to the territory because they are private enterprises.
“We can call the companies and put pressure on them … but we can’t force them,” she said.
There were also questions about about why mail heading to the territory goes through Puerto Rico instead of Miami. There’s been a perception over the years that the V.I. mail is “not treated the same,” Plaskett said. Ojeda pointed out that there are more flights to Puerto Rico from the mainland than from Miami to the USVI.
Plaskett asked the Postal Service officials to conduct a feasibility study into using chartered flights to deliver the territory’s mail and expedite hiring more staff.
Patricia Frorup approached the speakers with a large box and started pulling paper out of it. She said she had packed and mailed the box, with almost $300 of electronics and other items, to herself from the mainland. When she opened the box on St. Croix, she said, only one item remained and the box was studded with mailing and packing paper by whoever broke into it and stole her merchandise. She said received no help at all from the staff at the Christiansted Post Office, so she took her problem to the delegate’s office.
After the forum, Christiansted Postmaster Angel Tirado explained to her the process of filing claims for lost or damaged mail or packages. Unlike in the past, all claims must be submitted online and cannot be handled by the local post offices. Tirado said he verified that Frorup had made an online claim and had a paper record of it.
Several representatives from Veterans Affairs also answered questions. Verona Richardson, deputy director of V.A. Sunshine in St. Petersburg, Florida, said there are 1,400 service veterans in the territory. Plaskett said she believes there are as many as 8,000, but they haven’t all registered. The women said the more registered veterans there are in an area, the more federal funding VA centers receive.
Richardson said there are two new initiatives to help veterans. The first is VISIN Clinical Contact Center, where veterans can have a virtual medical or mental health visit 24 hours a day, seven days a week. After Jan. 2, vets will be able to schedule an appointment without leaving their homes.
The second program is about preparing for emergencies by “accessing more resources” and working with entities, such as V.I. Territorial Emergency Management agencies, to provide shelters with medical equipment and medications and to get prescriptions to veterans before the disaster strikes.
“We want to get to the core of the issues you’re dealing with,” Richardson said.
Veterans wrote so many questions there wasn’t time to answer them all at Thursday’s meeting. Some were grouped together, such as complaints about having to travel to Puerto Rico for appointments and being delayed coming home, or missing appointments because transportation was late. People said it took as long as two weeks to receive prescriptions after they had been approved, and one man said he has been waiting a year to get his glasses.
Another common complaint was the lack of reimbursement for funeral expenses for men and women who served their country. Patrick Farrell, director of the Virgin Islands Office of Veterans Affairs, said reimbursements were only made to the person who paid for the burial. Others complained about waiting two or more years for headstones for their loved ones.
Dr. Angie Zaya, chief of community care with the V.A. Caribbean Healthcare System, said glasses are ordered from one vendor nationwide. The V.A. is “trying to modify this process,” she said. She said low pay makes it more difficult to have the sufficient number of doctors and dentists to staff centers.
Dr. William Acevedo, deputy chief of the V.A. Caribbean Healthcare System, said there is no pharmacy on St. Croix because of low salaries for pharmacists. Some physicians are giving prescriptions of enough pills to last 90 says instead of the usual 30 days. He said some providers cause delays as well.
“Whatever you’re experiencing should not happen, Acevedo said.
Plaskett pushed suggestions about hiring more staff to the representatives of the USPS and the VA, and to come up with more efficient ways to do things.
She reminded the audience that veterans need to register to get benefits.
“I don’t want to continue having the same meetings to talk about the same issues, over and over again,” Plaskett said. “My job is to hold you (the federal partners) to what you said,” she added.