GLO commissioner talks veterans’ issues during lege briefing

McALLEN — On the eve of Veteran’s Day, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush spoke candidly about his COVID-19 response at veteran nursing homes across the state and the slim possibility of establishing a free-standing Veteran’s Affairs hospital in the Rio Grande Valley, an endeavor he said should come from the federal government.

Bush’s remarks came Tuesday during a Q&A portion of his speech to McAllen business leaders via a virtual meeting of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Council. The GAC has been hosting Zoom meetings with a number of elected officials to prepare local stakeholders for the upcoming 87th Legislative Session.

And while Bush’s speech focused mostly on an estimated $8 billion state budget shortfall, a decline in oil and gas revenue and public school funding challenges, questions surrounding veterans inevitably arose as his office is in charge of providing benefits to Texas veterans.

As chairman of the Veterans Land Board, Bush is responsible for the administration of five programs: the Veterans Land Program, Veterans Housing Assistance Program, Veterans Home Improvement Program, Texas State Veterans Homes Program and the Texas State Veterans Cemetery Program.

His office manages nine healthcare facilities for military veterans throughout the state, including the Alfredo Gonzalez State Veterans Home in McAllen, and four veterans cemeteries, including the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery in Mission.

On Tuesday, Bush spoke about some of the tough decisions he made to protect veterans from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were not immune from COVID-19,” he said about the nursing facilities. “We were the first public or private elderly care facility in the state of Texas to essentially shut down our facilities, even to relatives. And I know this created a lot of tension, and the media has highlighted this, but we thought it was the right thing to do to keep the virus from coming in.”

His office was also the first to require testing for nurses working at those facilities.

“There was obviously some pushback from our nurses, but I believe it’s the right thing to do, and the evidence shows that we have gone above and beyond what a lot of other elderly care facilities have done,” he said. “Unfortunately, one of the downsides to this approach is that a lot of our vets feel disconnected, and a lot of them are in their golden years and away from their families. So we have utilized the technology … to get our elderly connected to their communities and to their loved ones and giving them a sense of hope during this time, especially as we’re seeing a second spike in parts of our state.”

The Monitor asked Bush about a tweet state Rep. Terry Canales wrote earlier this month in response to a tweet from Bush on Nov. 2 that read, “We owe our Veterans everything. Each one signed a blank check for their lives in order to keep us safe. It’s up to us to make sure they’re honored. Join me on Veterans Day for a virtual Veterans Day Ceremony to show our thanks for everything they have done.”

Canales, not missing a beat, responded, “Then Join me in getting the Rio Grande Valley a free standing Veterans Hospital! Are the thousands of predominantly hispanic veterans from the RGV not entlitled (sic)? Why do they have to drive 250 miles to S.A.? Join me in taking a stand for those whom we owe everything!”

Bush addressed the comment Tuesday.

“So this is really a decision for our Veterans Affairs, and right now, regretfully, we’re looking at tremendous transition,” he said, noting the presidential election and Biden’s potential new appointments. “Regardless of how you view how November went, you know, the transition teams are now really at a standstill.”

Bush said bringing a VA hospital to South Texas has been a topic of discussion since being elected in 2014.

“Every time I travel to the Valley, this is probably a top-three agenda item that’s presented to me. And I want to be an honest broker on behalf of all Texans. And so the response that I typically hear from the VA is that they have challenges finding and meeting the needs for funding a flagship hospital in the region,” he said. “If COVID has taught us anything, I think remote healthcare and telehealth is to be learned from and utilized.”

Still, that presents its own challenges, he said.

“A lot of vets — especially our World War II, Korean and Vietnam era — they do not want to interact with the screen. They want to interact with a physical medical professional. So that is gonna be a challenge. That, along with UTRGV, we’re just gonna have to find solutions to,” he said, possibly referring to the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “And so I don’t have a good answer for you in terms of a flagship hospital, but I am all about finding solutions to help our vets to find the care that they need.”

The Valley is well-deserving and “transiting to San Antonio is not gonna get the job done,” he added.

“And part of my job will be communicating with leaders in DC and saying that the Valley’s overly patriotic,” he said. “On a percentage basis, more members of your community have served our nation’s military more than any other (part), I believe, in the state of Texas based upon the last study I’ve seen. So there’s more work to be done, but it’s about finding funding from the federal VA.”

Other business leaders asked about creating more nursing homes for veterans.

“We just actually completed our ninth facility in the greater Houston area, and it took the better part of my time here — and I’ve been here for six years — to obtain the funding for that,” Bush responded. “We’re now in the queue for a facility in Fort Worth.”

Bush said his office, however, would still consider any applications submitted, but noted he is not the person who decides where to put those facilities.

“And just to be clear, even though I serve as chair, I’m not the selection professional in terms of determining (sites),” he said. “We hire an outside firm that understands where population growth is, particularly in our veteran community, and seeing where they’re most underserved.”

Still, it’s important to keep an eye on the federal government and the president-elect’s potential new VA secretary.

“And understanding where they come from and what direction they wanna go, it’s gonna be important for an agency like ours,” Bush said.