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story.lead_photo.caption Mark Woodall, public affairs specialist with the VA Overton Brooks facility in Shreveport, La., shares updates with area veterans at a town hall meeting Thursday evening, September 19, 2019, at the Texarkana Area Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic. Staff photo by Junius Stone

Veterans' access to benefits, suicide prevention efforts and a streamlined meeting format were topics commented upon during Thursday's town hall meeting at the Texarkana Area Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic.

The monthly meetings are intended to give veterans the latest information and make them aware of changes and new programs.

One piece of information emphasized by officials Thursday was the Mission Act, legislation intended to increase a veteran's ability to see an in-network care provider. The idea is that if a veteran cannot get an appointment in a timely manner, the VA will arrange for a referral to a private provider.

"The website that gives information for the Mission Act has lots of information for a veteran seeking to find out about their benefits and more. It includes features like plugging in your address and seeing the care providers in your area," said Mark Woodall, public affairs specialist with the VA Overton Brooks facility in Shreveport, Louisiana. "The Mission Act improves response time for care access within the system."

The website is missionact.va.gov.

The talk of the Mission Act was one of several bits of information passed out Thursday.

The meeting proceeded according to a format that is intended to be more efficient and to allow veterans quicker access to experts in their particular concerns, an official said.

They gave the announcements, took a few questions, then allowed the meeting to break into smaller groups, as the veterans took their concerns to the gathered experts.

"We've had a positive response to this meeting format," said Woodall. "It allowed each vet to quickly talk to someone who can give them the information and response they need for their situation."

One area Woodall emphasized that the VA is aggressively pursuing is suicide prevention.

"Three hundred sixty-five days a year, 24 hours a day, the clinic's No. 1 priority is suicide prevention. In September, we work extra hard to raise awareness about the issue," Woodall said. "Twenty vets a day on average commit suicide. Out of that 20, only 14 are not getting VA care. We want to increase our outreach in providing VA care, to see more get the help they need."

The VA's national suicide crisis line is 1-800-273-3255.

"I can't tell you of the stories of desperate veterans late in the evening," said Lisa Breun, director of the VA regional office in Little Rock, "We want to make sure you have this. Don't be shy."

Freddie Weathers of Texarkana, a veteran of both the Army (1967-1968) and Air Force (1970-1992) said he loves the VA's new approach.

"I love it, no gripes with the VA. I volunteer out at this clinic," he said. "I celebrated my 72nd birthday out here with around 40 vets."

"The Veterans Administration has improved these last couple of years, since President Trump has gone to work," said Robert Y. Brown of Nash, Texas, a Marine veteran with three tours in Vietnam under his belt, the last one in 1969 ending prematurely because of a combat injury.

"They have really upped their game. You don't get lost in the system among the numbers anymore. And they refer to you by your name," he said.

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