Great article from MassInc, about the provision of Veteran’s Benefits at the State and local level with an off-shoot discussion about regionalizing Veteran’s Agent Services….
August 26, 2010
Vets in Need
The cost of veterans’ services is soaring for Massachusetts and its cities and towns.
The statewide tab is expected to rise nearly 25 percent this year. It has tripled over the last six years, rising from $12.8 million in fiscal 2006 to an estimated $37 million this year. The bill is split between the state and municipalities, with the state picking up 75 percent of the cost and local communities picking up the remaining 25 percent.
Most people who hear about the rising cost mistakenly assume it’s a side-effect of the country’s military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But state and local officials who work with veterans say their rapidly growing caseload has nothing to do with those campaigns. They say the veterans they are serving are largely casualties of the nation’s sputtering economy, men and women who are older and struggling to live on fixed incomes.
“We’re talking a lot of old timers living on the edge, collecting minimum Social Security benefits,” says Donat (Dan) LeBlanc, the veterans’ services officer in New Bedford. “The vast majority of my clients are World War II, Korean, and Vietnam War veterans or their widows.”
Most aid for veterans and their dependents is funded by the federal government, but many states augment those services. Massachusetts runs a number of programs to help indigent veterans and their dependents with food, housing, clothing, fuel, and medical care. Some jobless benefits are also available.
What’s driving up costs is the number of veterans needing help. The statewide caseload is currently at 7,500, up nearly 40 percent in the last three years. “The vast majority of the increase is due to the economy,” says Coleman Nee, the state’s undersecretary for veterans’ services. “We’re talking people losing their jobs, seniors struggling on Social Security, people who have seen the value of their pensions and 401Ks go way down.”
In New Bedford, LeBlanc said his caseload was 59 clients 10 years ago. He says the number hit 252 in January 2009, rose to 401 last January, and should hit 500 this coming January. Nearly half are single and most are unemployed or underemployed, LeBlanc says.
The cost of veteran services is a burden for struggling cities and towns. Municipalities have to pay the cost of veterans’ services up front and then wait nearly a year for reimbursement from the state. New Bedford, for example, paid out nearly $2.3 million in benefits last year and is still waiting for its state reimbursement.
Some communities are trying to save money by combining their veteran outreach efforts. Rather than having a veterans’ services agent in each town, Easton and Norton in June combined their operations under a single agent. The merger was rejected in late May by Thomas Kelley, the secretary of the State Department of Veterans’ Services, who feared service to veterans would deteriorate. But Kelley changed his mind in June and approved the merger after the towns agreed to provide the veterans’ services agent with support staff.
LeBlanc in New Bedford says he doesn’t approve of such mergers. With one person covering two or more towns, he says, there is invariably less outreach to veterans.
But Stephen Nolan, the veterans’ services officer for Easton and Norton, says regionalization makes sense. He notes that he and his support staff will be handling about 100 clients between the two towns, while LeBlanc and his support staff in New Bedford will be handling 500.
“Towns should regionalize,” Nolan says. “Every town is having their problems, and this is one way of attacking it.”