Gotham Gazette

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Veterans Benefits Counselors at Risk in Budget

vets parade

(nycmarines via flickr)

In mid-2013 the Robin Hood Foundation gave the City a $250,000 grant through the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York. The money would pay for the salaries and training of three veterans benefits counselors for one year. The counselors, formally called Service Officers, act as a resource point for veterans asking about and pursuing their benefits from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The counselors assist veterans in preparing paperwork and guide them through the life of a claim.

The grant is slated to expire by September of this year. Its terms stipulate that if the program is successful, the City could pick up the tab for the three positions moving forward. Despite the success of the program, funding for the benefits counselors was not included in the mayor's preliminary budget, leaving veterans advocates to wonder how the counselors will be funded.

"We are making a positive impact," said Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) Commissioner Terrance Holliday by phone May 1. "I want to see this thing continue in some form, but I have to have that discussion with City Hall."

Gotham Gazette spoke with the Robin Hood Foundation, which confirmed it will not fund the program past the life of the grant. If the positions are not funded when the mayor's executive budget is released on Thursday, the positions will be on track for termination by September unless funding comes from elsewhere. Emails to the mayor's office were not returned.

For its part, the City Council did include a request for $400,000 in additional funding for MOVA in its response to the mayor's preliminary budget.

The veterans claims counselors at MOVA have become a useful resource for helping the city's veterans navigate a federal VA dealing with an excess backlog of claims. In recent years, the number of claims, as well as the length of time claims sit open, has grown exponentially. This has been fueled by the increase of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as rules allowing more Agent Orange-related, Vietnam era claims to be filed.

In May of 2013 there were 880,000 open VA claims nationwide, 68 percent of which had wait times over 125 days, according to data on the VA website. The average wait to close a claim was 272 days.

MOVA benefits counselors do not process the claims directly, but receive training from the State VA office to learn the system. The idea behind creating the counselors' positions is that if the paperwork is submitted correctly and to the right department the first time, the process would be expedited, the total number of claims reduced, and veterans would receive benefits more quickly.

The VA has implemented a variety of new processes and procedures to expedite VA claims, with benefits counselors playing one role, and combined efforts have worked to bring claims numbers down nationwide. In the May 5, 2014 report from the VA, there were 590,000 claims pending of which 308,000, or 52%, were over 125 days old.

Since they do not resolve claims, there is no data to show what kind of direct impact the three benefits counselors funded by the Robin Hood Foundation are having on claims numbers. Holliday said since they completed their training and began work on October 1, 2013, they have seen over 300 veterans, exceeding the goal set forth in the grant by 100.

Holliday said he would not credit any drop in claims numbers solely to the benefits counselors, but said they are another important access point for veterans to get their claims resolved.

Joseph Bello, a U.S. Navy veteran and a veterans advocate who runs NY Metro Vets, said the idea of utilizing the counselors in lieu of veterans working on the claims themselves has picked up in the veterans community.

"As we have gone along and more people are starting to find out about the program, they want to get to these counselors because they are doing a good job," Bello said by phone May 2.

Bello said if the City does not pick up funding for the three benefits counselors, veterans would be able to find new counselors through private organizations or the State, but that a switch could easily delay the claim because the new counselor would have to pick up in the middle of the process. Bello added that there are also significant issues of trust because these counselors are dealing with extremely personal issues - issues like physical disability, emotional and psychological trauma, and residency and job security.

"Like any relationship, you want to feel comfortable with that individual when meeting with them," Bello said of the veteran-counselor relationship. "There has to be some sort of trust because this individual is handling your disability claim with the VA."

Bello said he hopes to see the funding picked up by the City.

"If veterans agree this has been a successful program, then I don't understand why we would discontinue this program," Bello said. "There has to be a way the administration can re-fund it and keep the program going."

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette


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