Editorial: Help veterans get services they've earned
Given that the Department of Defense budget tops $515 billion this year — a figure not including $33 billion allocated for Veterans Affairs — it’s no surprise there’s often red tape separating soldiers from services.
But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. Tangled, tormenting bureaucracy is the last thing veterans deserve upon returning home.
In part due to the convoluted array of benefits, many veterans aren’t accessing services through Veterans Affairs, even though they may be eligible. Freshman Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wants to close the communication gap by mandating that the VA notify all veterans about the benefits for which they’re eligible.
Gillibrand’s bill, dubbed Pro-Vets — Providing Real Outreach for Veterans — was introduced just in time for Memorial Day. A political gesture, perhaps, but a justifiable one. The more attention that’s focused on better utilizing currently offered services, the better.
The Canandaigua, N.Y., VA Medical Center is among the innovators in improving care.
One of several initiatives under way is the Safe Vet project, which aims to guide veterans through the system — and keep them from slipping through the cracks. The project hires coordinators to oversee care, with an emphasis on mental health. It’s an innovative effort to help prevent suicide among veterans, a disturbing trend.
Last year, 140 Army soldiers committed suicide. Since 2003, the annual number of suicides among active-duty soldiers has increased 60 percent. Such figures underscore the need to pay closer attention to the mental health needs of veterans.
The Safe Vet initiative, which inspired similar programs in Denver and Philadelphia, helps develop a plan of care tailored to individual needs. That includes referrals to another successful VA program, the national suicide-prevention hotline.
Judging from the numbers, veterans have welcomed the hotline with open arms. In fiscal 2008, the service received 67,350 calls. For just the first six months of fiscal 2009, there have been more than 50,000 calls.
The hotline and Safe Vet target the special needs of veterans, needs that have gone too long overlooked, with dire results. Gillibrand’s push to expand awareness of those and other services is a welcome one. Efforts to simplify veterans’ choices — and, in doing so, ensure access to care and programs like those at the VA — are only right. After all, the veterans earned these services.