Veterans' homelessness, health care and marijuana use were among topics tackled during a community conversation held by The Gazette with a panel of six experts Tuesday night.
With more than 80,000 veterans in the Pikes Peak region and an unusually rich military presence, "We do have the best support in America," said U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. "There is no one that exceeds us."
The local network of veterans' advocacy groups includes the Mount Carmel Center, Peak Military Care Network, El Pomar Foundation and Crawford House.
But no one entity can do it alone, said Kate Hatten, who as president and CEO of Peak Military Care oversees 44 partner agencies that provide specialized help to veterans.
The Gazette and news partner KKTV Channel 11 are providing a hotline from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, staffed by experts from the offices of U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, to answer veterans' questions about health care. Call 719-457-0640.
Collaboration is essential to furnish veterans with the range of services they need, Hatten said.
But there are gaps.
"We need to fill in those gaps not being provided by the VA or any other government agency," said Terrance McWilliams, who oversees military programs for the El Pomar Foundation. "And trust me, there are a lot of gaps out there."
The number of homeless veterans in Colorado, for example, has increased by 25 percent, even as it dropped in 43 other states in 2016, reports the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In Colorado Springs, the Crawford House has helped 18,000 veterans find housing since 2001, said Jay Bowen, who heads the group's board. And it has an 87 percent success rate in finding jobs for those people, he said.
"We are trying to work ourselves out of a job," Bowen said.
But the problem persists.
Veterans, homeless or not, also need quicker access to mental health services, said Bob McLaughlin, chief operations officer for Mount Carmel Center.
"Many veterans tell me medical marijuana is helping them with getting through their issues," McLaughlin said. "Whatever helps the veteran get through the pain and the anxiety."
But McLaughlin and the other panel members said more research and oversight are needed on whether medical marijuana is truly effective with PTSD and other veterans' problems.
Questions from the audience of more than 100 gravitated toward problems with the Veterans Administration, including long patient waits for care and inadequate funding of Veterans Choice private care.
Lamborn seized the opportunity to promote his Veterans Empowerment Act, a proposal before Congress that would allow veterans in many cases to opt out of VA care in favor of privatized health insurance.
Critics in veterans groups worry that pushing the VA toward privatization would pull cash from VA programs now in place, cutting the quality of veterans care in the long run.