Veterans’ advocate cuts back on visits

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NORWAY – For the past several years, Robin Shepard, a veterans’ counselor based in Lewiston, has driven twice a month to his Paris office to check in with veterans living there.

Because the drive to Lewiston is inconvenient and long for many older people, it is helpful to have an advocate who can go to them.

But this past month Shepard had to cut his visits to the Maine Veterans Home in Paris to just once a month, a move that followed a year of fewer visits to his posts in Rumford, Farmington and North Windham.

Last fall, the Bureau of Maine Veterans Services had to slash its travel budget in half in all six of its field offices. Most counselors decreased the stops they made to outlying offices to once every four weeks.

“I am not there to assist them with the issues that they may have,” Shepard said about his clients. “I am having a lot of people show up, with longer wait times, and I may spend an entire day dealing with people.”

Veterans’ advocates help veterans, their dependents and their survivors file for benefits they are eligible for based on military service, like disability compensation, pensions and health care.

The travel budget was cut from under $20,000 to half that for the fiscal 2006-07 fiscal year that starts July 1, according to Peter Ogden, director of the Bureau of Maine Veterans Services.

This cut followed a large statewide budget reduction last year, which affected many agencies and caused belt-tightening throughout Maine.

Because the budget covers two years, the Bureau of Veterans Affairs won’t have the chance to receive more money until 2008. Ogden said he plans to submit his next budget for approval this fall.

The bureau will review all the field offices throughout Maine to determine which are busiest, and then tally a travel budget that will be most effective, Ogden said.

Maine has 150,000 veterans, not including widows or dependents. This demographic makes up roughly 16 percent of the state’s total population.

The bureau has six field offices from Calais to Sanford and maintains 20 sites in more remote locations called itinerant sites.

“Our job with our itinerant sites, and there are about 20 itinerant sites, is we get out to the communities as much as possible, some are once a month, some twice a month,” Ogden said. “Lately it’s been down to once a month.”

Shepard said veterans are coming more frequently to his Lewiston office to meet with him since he pared his visits to itinerant sites.

Ogden said his agency it still providing services to veterans, but that travel restrictions have in some cases lengthened the time it takes to get paperwork cleared.

“We haven’t curtailed our services,” Ogden said. “We can do things by mail, too. It might just be a little slow for things happening.”

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