Kelly Cassidy

Chicago Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy speaks to a reporter at the Capitol in Springfield on May 24, 2018. 

A joint committee meeting focused on ways to improve health care for veterans, including access to medical cannabis, in Illinois ahead of Veterans Day.

The meeting included the Illinois Veterans Affairs Committee along with the Appropriations and Health Services committees. Grace Hou, secretary of the Department of Human Services, and Veterans' Affairs Director Terry Prince attended.

The committees met to address gaps in services for Veterans through the Department of Human Services and Veterans Affairs to help prevent suicide, homelessness, and mental health issues and to lay out plans for future policy priorities.

Dr. Alan Bridges, of William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, said that addressing issues within veterans' health care should be a priority.

"I can say to you from my role on the national health care delivery committee for the VA that care for veterans is of the utmost priority," Bridges said. "Anything we can do to provide them housing or provide them healthcare we are most interested in."

Hou stressed the importance of collaboration amongst committees when addressing these issues.

"We know in our administration that serving our state's veterans is not just the job of one agency, it's all of ours," Hou said. "It's all of ours job and we take that very seriously."

Veterans that are currently homeless are another issue the state is working to fix. Currently, Illinois Veterans homes are at about half capacity with many open beds available. This is partially due to covid and lack of workers, VA director Terry Prince said.

"Staffing, ladies and gentleman, is a tremendous issue for all of our organizations," Prince said. "Whether it's at the state's veterans homes or the coffee shop down the street, all organizations are facing staffing challenges."

Prince is in his first year of Acting Director for the Veterans Affairs, replacing former director Linda Chapa LaVia who left after mismanagement allegations during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The committees are also asking for more service officers statewide to help with the growing number of veterans in the state. Illinois has 160 service officers who work with over 600,000 veterans.

Vets living in a state-run Veterans Home are currently not allowed to use medical cannabis because the drug remains illegal under federal law. Veterans who use medical marijuana are listed in the veterans' database as drug abusers. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy and the committees are looking to fix that issue.

"We understand that it is still illegal federally," Cassidy said. "The issue of classifying this as abuse in states that it is legal is problematic for these veterans, and frankly unfair to them."