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W.Va. veterans facilities criticized

CHARLESTON, W.Va.--Veterans in wheelchairs have a tough time fitting through the door at the Beckley office of the state Department of Veterans Assistance.

It's not much better once they're inside, according to a state review.

The Beckley office is one of several state veterans facilities that's in danger of violating federal law because it's either too small, doesn't offer enough privacy or doesn't adequately store confidential information, as outlined in a report from the state Legislature's Performance Evaluation and Research Division.

"I think, like all Americans, our veterans deserve the utmost care. They've earned it," said Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred.

"And we need to make sure that those veterans who are disabled can easily access the state Department of Veterans Assistance offices."

State lawmakers serving on a government operations and organizations committee were scheduled to receive the report at a meeting late Tuesday night.

The auditor's office examined six of the 16 field service offices operated by the department. The offices offer local veterans help obtaining and applying for benefits, according to the department's website.

The offices in Beckley, Lewisburg, Logan, Huntington and Princeton are potentially out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, federal privacy laws or both, the report states.

A 2012 survey of almost 1,200 West Virginia veterans found about 42 percent reported having some sort of service-connected disability. As of 2009, More than 25,000 West Virginia veterans received disability compensation monthly.

There are roughly 170,000 veterans in West Virginia.

Hallways and doorways in the Beckley and Lewisburg locations are too small to meet ADA standards.

"The Veterans Service Officer Assistant reported having difficulty in getting motorized wheelchairs through the narrow doorways," the report states, referring to the Beckley location.

"Additionally, once the wheelchairs make it through the doorway, the workers must remove furniture in the office to allow adequate maneuvering for the veterans."

The Beckley office is located on Neville Street in downtown Beckley. Allred said his staff thought the office had been at that site for at least the last 10 years.

A spokeswoman for the department didn't immediately know how long the office had been in that location.

Offices in Princeton, Logan and Huntington didn't offer a separate, enclosed area where veterans could privately discuss health or personal issues. An employee at the Logan office said there have been times when he would ask other veterans to wait out in the hall so a veteran could discuss a sensitive topic, according to the report.

The Beckley, Lewisburg and Logan facilities also didn't have enough space to properly store confidential information provided by veterans.

The department's Charleston field office was the only site the auditor's office visited that is large enough, offers private rooms and properly stores confidential information.

After finding issues at five of the six sites visited, the auditor's office is going to evaluate every field office.

Secretary Rick Thompson wrote in a letter to the auditor's office his department had received the report. He acknowledged concerns noted in the report and said further investigation may be needed.

"I have forwarded a copy of this report to the Real Estate Division, which oversees the leasing of our various offices, and assure you that the department is eager to do anything else we can to correct these shortcomings," Thompson wrote.

Allred said the department and Thompson have been cooperative. He said he's not sure how the problems will be fixed, but he's confident Thompson and legislative leadership will find a solution.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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