A suicide outside the Veterans Affairs clinic in Northfield has prompted a state senator to again call for changes in how health care is delivered to veterans in South Jersey.

Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, is asking the VA to approve a pilot program that would allow South Jersey veterans to receive health care from local providers.

“While we do not know all of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy, media reports indicate that veterans seeking care at the facility can experience lengthy delays in receiving treatment,” Van Drew wrote in a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald dated Thursday.

Van Drew made a similar plea about eight months ago but didn’t even get the courtesy of a response, he said in a phone interview.

“Reportedly, a patient could wait up to six months for an appointment to see a therapist,” Van Drew said, referring to comments in The Press of Atlantic City by psychologist Cori-Ann Feiner-Escoto, who works at the Northfield facility.

Egg Harbor Township Navy veteran Charles R. Ingram III, 51, died at Temple Health’s burn unit in Philadelphia hours after dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire outside the clinic the afternoon of March 19. The clinic at 1901 New Road was closed at the time, as it always is on weekends.

“The clinic also appears to be grossly understaffed as one psychologist reports providing therapy to 200 veterans at any given time,” Van Drew wrote. “To make matters worse, there are no Veterans Affairs hospitals in the region, so even if a veteran is able to schedule a timely appointment at the nearest VA hospital, he or she would have to travel hours to Philadelphia, Penn., northern New Jersey or Delaware to receive care.”

Van Drew is a dentist and worked in Veterans Affairs medical centers the year after he graduated from dental school, he said.

“I understand the VA can do a lot of good. But in today's times, with all the changes that have  occurred, we need more flexibility,” said Van Drew.

Services for Ingram, who leaves behind a wife and two young children, will be held Saturday. No note of explanation was left at the scene of the fire or at Ingram’s home, and family members have declined to talk to The Press.

Advocates for veterans have said Ingram was a patient at the Northfield clinic, which is part of the Wilmington VA Hospital. He served in the Navy from 1985 to 1992, according to his obituary.

Van Drew said in the letter that he had made a similar request eight months ago.

He said the New Jersey Legislature endorsed a plan developed by the New Jersey Veterans’ Hospital Task Force in January 2014 that would have the VA issue cards to veterans, who could get care without delay at community doctors’ offices and hospitals.

Van Drew said local hospitals that have expressed interest in participating include Shore Medical Center, AtlantiCare, Cape Regional Medical Center, the Virtua System, Inspira Health Network, the Meridian Health Care System, Deborah Heart and Lung Center and the Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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