Sheheen, Smith plan efforts to address veterans issues in S.C.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pauses while speaking at a meeting of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington. He resigned Friday.

COLUMBIA - Two prominent South Carolina Democrats, a gubernatorial candidate and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, plan to announce measures next week that call on Gov. Nikki Haley and others to help alleviate systemic problems at Department of Veterans Affairs' facilities in the state.

The VA is a federal agency embroiled in controversy - mounting evidence of misconduct and mismanagement at the agency resulted in the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki Friday and President Barack Obama addressed the issue at a news conference shortly thereafter.

Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a candidate for governor, and Rep. James Smith of Richland County said in interviews with The Post and Courier that the state can and should step in to ensure better quality care for the state's veterans.

"These are ideas that one of our own wounded warriors is supporting and helped me come up with," Sheheen said of Smith, a National Guardsman who served in Afghanistan. "What we're saying is we can't wait on Washington. Leadership means we step up to the plate and put forward solutions."

A Haley spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

There is currently a backlog of more than 340,000 veterans waiting for the VA to process their disability claims, according to the agency and information provided by the Democrats. Columbia's Dorn VA Hospital, among others, has also been criticized for failing to treat veterans in a timely matter, which could have led to deaths or substandard healthcare for veterans who rely on it, according to media reports.

The plan has not yet been totally fleshed out. Dollars haven't been specifically allocated to initiatives and Sheheen said implementation of many parts of the plan would be up to the governor or her agency heads.

Smith plans to put forward an item in the state's budget next week that would provide no-interest loans to disabled veterans who are waiting for disability claims to be processed. If a claim was denied, the plan would allow a veteran to repay the loan with no penalty, so long as there was no finding of fraud.

He has not yet specified a dollar amount or where the funds would be directed from. Smith, a major in the National Guard, served in Afghanistan and his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb in March 2008. He said the healthcare the military provided - he still suffers from permanent injuries, including hearing loss and Traumatic Brain Injury - was generally very good.

But he said the VA process can be cumbersome.

"It would make a material difference," Smith said of so-called bridge loans to help veterans with disability claims. "The VA process is just one that takes time. That's a piece that would be definitely worthwhile."

The plan also calls on state agencies, under the purview of Haley, to allow for longer hours for state health clinics to provide care; create a Veterans Care Triage System with the Department of Health and Environmental Control in coordination with other agencies; and expand outreach and resources for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress, among others.

The Democrats also said that expanding Medicaid in the state under the federal Affordable Care Act would help thousands of veterans. Haley and Republicans in the Legislature have said doing so would be a bad long-term deal for South Carolina and they have rejected calls for expansion.

The Democrats also want the state's inspector general to conduct an audit of existing state programs to identify additional federal or state-based sources that could help veterans gain access to health care.

One potential downside is that the state stepping in could add red tape, said Paul Passaro, an Army veteran from Charlotte who is affiliated with Concerned Veterans of America.

"Being a veteran and having gone to the VA clinics here in Charlotte, I think we'd be adding a layer of confusion if the states try to step in as well," he said.

Smith said he understands those concerns and would look to ensure that the state wasn't trying to replace the VA but supplement it due to backlogs. "We're not cutting VA red rape, we're throwing a lifeline until that process is completed," he said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.