November 13, 2009

New York is home to 85,000 veterans who have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Too many veterans find new battles awaiting them at home—from overcoming physical, mental and emotional injuries, to finding a job in a poor economy.

The event was attended by individuals representing a range of organizations, including veterans service organizations, community-based providers of behavioral health and social services, the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system (VA), and State and local government agencies.

NYHealth President and CEO James R. Knickman opened the event by highlighting that the Foundation established the NYHealth Initiative for Returning Veterans and Their Families because it considers veterans issues to be a community health—rather than a military—concern. Dr. Knickman also announced that NYHealth has commissioned a Statewide Needs Assessment for Returning Veterans and Their Families, which should be completed by early 2010 and will help guide allocations and program development in this area.

The conversation began by highlighting recent accomplishments, including the Post 9/11 GI Bill providing veterans with comprehensive education benefits, and recent legislation to provide the Department of Veterans Affairs with advanced funding. While these pieces of legislation—which came about through strong and sustained advocacy by organizations, including IAVA—are great achievements, Mr. McDonough and Mr. Rieckhoff emphasized the need to maintain momentum and secure more resources to make a lasting impact. Specifically, they focused on the following areas:

  • Claims Backlog: An average claim made by a veteran takes 180 days to be processed by the VA; there is currently a backlog of more than 900,000 outstanding claims and appeals.
  • Low Enrollment: Only four out of every 10 veterans access VA benefits. One reason for low enrollment is that returning veterans are not automatically enrolled in the VA health care system upon discharge. Further, the VA has limited ability to conduct outreach and to advertise its services.
  • Lack of Data: A lack of data inhibits efforts to effectively serve veterans, and makes it difficult to generate support among key elected officials and stakeholders. Both speakers noted that NYHealth’s Statewide Needs Assessment will be a valuable tool in addressing this issue.

Both Mr. McDonough and Mr. Rieckhoff emphasized the need to coordinate local and State efforts with the VA and the Federal government, and the importance of state- and community-based initiatives, which can potentially filter up and impact national reform efforts. Here in New York, Mr. McDonough aims to streamline veterans claims processing by moving all claims online by the end of 2010, making New York the first state with the ability to e-file all of its claims with the VA. Dr. Knickman closed the event by reiterating Mr. Rieckhoff’s statement that veterans issues are at a “tipping point” because along with great needs and challenges, there is tremendous good will and the opportunity to pool public and private resources to address the needs of returning veterans and their families.

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