By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — With the majority of Americans who served in the military unaware of the benefits due them, the VA is working to ensure that all veterans are fully informed of their eligibility for healthcare and other services, lawmakers were told last month.
“Accessing healthcare has never been more simple. Across the country, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are utilizing VA healthcare at a rate greater than any previous generation, including an unprecedented increase in the number of women receiving care at the VA,” said VA Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Tommy Sowers, PhD.
Sowers made his statement at a hearing where lawmakers expressed concern that many veterans remain unaware that they qualify to access VA programs and benefits .
“No matter how good the programs are that the VA has, no matter how good the healthcare program may be or what they are doing with homelessness or many other areas, it doesn’t mean anything if the veteran does not know what that program is about,” said Senate Veterans’ Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Sowers acknowledged that outreach remains critical. Of the more than 22 million veterans in the United States, fewer than half are currently accessing any VA benefits, he said. In addition, a 2010 survey revealed almost 60% of veterans knew either “very little” or “nothing at all” about their VA benefits.
Responding to a question about what VA is doing to reach older veterans, such as Vietnam veterans, Sowers called the strategy “multifaceted.”
“Vietnam veterans are the largest proportion of veterans on Facebook, but it will require more than Facebook: It will require some direct face time as well,” he said.
Sowers also said that reaching this group through partner organizations is key, because Vietnam veterans “represent the largest cohort within the members of veteran service organizations.”
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are eligible within five years from the date of discharge or release from active duty for up to five years of free healthcare. Sowers said 56% of the 1.5 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have utilized VA healthcare, a historically high number. Still, he acknowledged the agency has got to “do better.”
To reach even more veterans, VA recently initiated a campaign called “VA Access.” The campaign seeks to inform veterans of the care and benefits they have earned and how to access them, Sowers explained. As part of the campaign, VA was planning to release a national advertising campaign on radio, TV and billboards in late spring.
“VA Access is a multi-year communication and outreach effort involving our three administrations and staff offices,” he said. “We have incorporated best practices from the private sector, built in strategic and tactical objectives, set milestones, established quantifiable metrics to measure our performance. The central thing on how we measure our success is by the number of new customers, in our case veterans, who are accessing the system.”
Meanwhile, community-based organizations that provide service to veterans also weighed in on the issue, telling Congress about programs being employed to reach veterans when the federal government has failed to do so.
Coleman Nee, who heads up the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services, told lawmakers that his state has found “it is not always a lack of resources” keeping veterans and their families from accessing help, but also a “lack of knowledge of those benefits and how to navigate the various bureaucracies associated with those benefits.”
Massachusetts’ programs to increase access for veterans could serve as national models, Nee said.
One of those programs, Statewide Advocacy for Veterans’ Empowerment (SAVE), “is comprised of veterans or family members of veterans who have lived through similar transitions and can use their experiences to build a rapport with veterans and/or veteran family members,” Nee cited. “It offers peer-to-peer crisis intervention, coupled with resource navigation to advocate for veterans who are not able to obtain the benefits they have earned due to institutional or personal barriers.”
Another advocate, Eric Weingartner, from the Robin Hood Foundation in New York, an advocacy group which fights poverty, told lawmakers that VA needs to do a better job of partnering with community programs to ensure veterans can connect to local resources.
“Literally, right now, veterans are walking in the door, and there is no structure around the ability to hand off a vet into community programs which makes up the vast majority of human services in any local community,” he said.
Lawmakers expressed agreement that more collaboration is needed between VA, state and local organizations to increase access to resources for veterans.
“We appreciate that, if we are going to do justice for our veterans — the older veterans and the ones that are just returning — we are going to need a very strong level of cooperation between the VA and other federal agencies and nonprofits and state agencies throughout the country,” Sanders said in concluding the hearing.
Please use screenshot at https://www.facebook.com/VAWelcomeHome as illustration.