David Sandman

New York State is home to about 800,000 veterans, the fifth-largest veteran population in the United States.

Many of them return back from war healthy and ready to reintegrate into their communities, but for some, physical and mental wounds of war persist. Medical care accounts for the largest share of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spending in New York State — nearly $3 billion per year. We’ve all seen the news and heard devastating stories about the crisis of veteran suicide. Veterans are twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to experience homelessness. Our veterans need and deserve help to live healthy and full lives when they return home — and they’ve earned it.

To meet the needs of our veterans, every state has a dedicated entity — a department of veterans affairs, or DVA — to help veterans with the numerous issues they face: getting access to VA care, filing disability claims and appeals, enrolling in Veterans Treatment Courts where available, and connecting to a range of health and social services.

But wide variations exist across DVAs in terms of budget, structure, and services offered. (And even in name: In New York, our DVA is the Division of Veterans’ Services, or DVS for short.) Some offer a wide variety of direct services from employment counseling to mental health programs, while others act as central navigators that refer veterans to external service providers.

A recent report from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University looked at all of the state DVAs and identified which ones are doing well, what innovative approaches are being tested, and the conditions that help DVAs to succeed. Ohio, Texas, and Michigan came out near the top.

What would it take for New York to be a top performer? A companion report from IVMF looking specifically at New York found that a big challenge for DVS has been a lack of stable, high-quality leadership — the agency was recently without a director for more than a year. In the leading states, the director reports directly to the governor, which is not the case in New York. New York’s DVS is also substantially underfunded, with an annual budget of about $20 million. By comparison, states with similarly-sized veteran populations have budgets around $90 million. More funding for New York’s DVS could support critical enhancements like more public-private partnerships in communities, new programming, an updated assessment of New York veterans’ needs, and a robust communications strategy.

What else could be done to make DVS stronger and more responsive to the needs of the veterans who call New York home? The first bit of good news is that we have new leadership. Colonel (Ret.) James McDonough, Jr., was appointed as the director of DVS earlier this year. (Full disclosure: I used to work with Jim when he was a Senior Fellow for Veterans’ Affairs at the New York Health Foundation.) He is an Army veteran and someone who’s passionate about improving the lives of veterans.

And earlier this week, at an event at the Foundation, he made a commitment to take up many of the recommendations of the IVMF report. Although he doesn’t have direct control over his department’s budget or who he reports to, in other areas he is poised to implement changes that will put New York in line with the highest-performing states’ DVAs:

  • Align roles, missions, and responsibilities with stakeholders across New York State. Understanding how DVS fits in with other public and private entities throughout the state that are also focused on veterans’ issues (and even those that could be, but aren’t currently) is an important step to maximizing the division’s impact. What are its unique strengths, and where might others be better positioned to take the lead? In the highest-performing states, for example, the department of veterans’ affairs serves as a central coordinating body but decentralizes the actual administration of benefits and claims assistance to the county level. New York could take a similar approach, or possibly a hybrid that makes the most of our state’s and counties’ particular strengths.
  • Improve cross-sector/agency collaboration and community coordination for health care. Top DVAs across the country have carved out a role as statewide health care coordinating body. These collaborations can help identify and address gaps in veteran services, ensure coordination, and facilitate veterans’ connections to local resources. (In Michigan, a model state, these are known as VCATs, short for Veterans Community Action Teams.) This approach may be increasingly important as more veterans seek out care in community settings, rather than through the VA.
  • Acquire a current understanding of New York’s veterans’ and providers’ needs. As they say, “Know your audience.” DVS needs to understand what New York’s veterans need and want in order to provide the most appropriate services and meet their needs and preferences. A needs assessment would inform the priorities, resource allocation, and engagement strategies not only of DVS but also of other organizations throughout the state who care about the veteran population.
  • Develop a tailored communications and outreach strategy. Veterans need to know about available resources in order to take advantage of them. New York could do a better job of ensuring that its communication and outreach activities are tailored to the specific media channels and platforms that different demographic groups (e.g., older vs. younger veterans) are most likely to use. Florida offers a good model, with dedicated resources to engage veterans who are difficult to reach, such as those in rural communities. They maintain a strong online presence to engage with younger and middle-age veterans, but at the same time, go as far as purchasing signage on top of gas pumps in rural counties to reach older rural veterans.

It’s not an easy task to become a best-in-class department of veterans affairs. But neither is it easy to serve your country and put your life on the line every day to protect it. All of us, and especially those specifically tasked with helping our veterans thrive, have an obligation to ensure that our veterans get the services they need and deserve.

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York Health Foundation
Published in Medium on September 26, 2019

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