Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Is an Excellent Opportunity to Focus on the Needs of Our Veterans in California

Via California Progress Report:

Memorial Day Is an Excellent Opportunity to Focus on the Needs of Our Veterans in California

By Mary Salas
Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee

This Memorial Day while you are enjoying a backyard BBQ take a moment to ponder this little known fact: on any given night in California over 50,000 veterans are homeless, while other veterans may be suffering from mental health issues or experiencing difficulty transitioning back to work. Among the many needs and challenges we face as a state, appropriate care for our veterans must be a priority.

California is home to more than 2.2 million veterans. While it is correct to note that the care of our veterans is primarily the responsibility of the federal government,
the ability of the federal government to honor this obligation has been called into question. Time and again we have seen inefficient delivery of veteran services and benefits and a failure to anticipate and plan for an increase in health care problems associated with veterans, particularly those returning from Iraq.

Many veterans are in need of mental health and suicide prevention counseling and treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury, the signature injuries from the Iraq War. There is also an estimated backlog of over 600,000 claims for federal benefit applications with the US Department of Veterans Affairs for disability compensation and pension payments. These can take months, if not years, to process.

Because less than 11 percent of eligible veterans in this state actually receive these payments (which ranks us 38th nationally in terms of participation), millions of dollars are not being paid to our resident veterans and therefore not being returned to our economy. If California could increase this rate to the national average of
slightly over 12%, more than $330 million could be returned to our veterans and our economy.

Unfortunately, our state and local governments are no position to help either, given the budget challenges we are currently facing. Nonetheless, more must be done to better use the resources we have.

The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office indicates that approximately 144,000 military veterans in California who could be receiving comprehensive medical benefits from the US Veterans Administration (VA) health care system are enrolled instead in the state-funded Medi-Cal Program. The state could eventually save as much as $250 million annually from a voluntary shift of veterans from Medi-Cal into VA health care by implementing a data matching system which would identify veterans that are eligible to transfer to the VA.

California’s Department of Veterans Affairs administers a farm and home loan program that is restricted to serving only pre-1977 veterans and to lending for only single family mortgages. Meanwhile, thousands of veterans in need of transitional and multifamily housing receive little, if any, support. This program must be modernized to meet the needs of today’s veterans.

Regardless of how one feels about the Iraq war, we will all be forced to deal with its aftermath. Our state and local governments will be challenged to care for the veterans of past service as well as the soldiers returning from the Iraq war. These soldiers have sacrificed their welfare for ours. Let’s renew our commitment to these brave men and women as we commemorate Memorial Day.

Assembly Member Mary Salas was appointed Chair of the Committee on Veterans Affairs in 2007. Her father and six uncles all served in the armed forces. She represents the 79th California State Assembly District which includes the cities of Chula Vista, National City, Imperial Beach, Coronado, and portions of San Diego.

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