The Tangled Web of Administering Veterans’ Benefits in New York
In 2014 the State of New York sent 6,347 soldiers into the U.S. military, widely considered the best trained, best organized armed force on the planet.
Unfortunately a recent study by the Benjamin Center’s Dr. Gerald Benjamin and Timothy Toomey, both veterans themselves, found that New York state’s own organization serving our veterans once they return from service is disorganized and dysfunctional. And among the findings of the recent discussion brief, are that although service members are required to receive lengthy separation counseling, where they also learn of multiple support systems that include state and federal networks ranging from health care to education, employment, and financial and legal benefits, all too frequently these new veterans get fire-hosed with information.
As one analyst noted:
… [M]embers of today’s military have many resources at their fingertips when they separate, but it’s often incredibly overwhelming. Transitioning service members are trying to change careers, and may be moving themselves and families across the country, all while doing their day jobs up until terminal leave. Many service members may still be trying to figure out exactly what they want to do.
It’s not just that veterans may not hear of benefits they’re qualified for, either. Toomey and Benjamin’s research shows that veterans may be victims of fraud as a result of getting conflicting information, or they may over-pay when they’re entitled to benefits. For instance, in New York state law requires that localities offer veterans partial exemption from property taxes; there are specially focused programs for veterans with service-related disabilities, and for those who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system.
The problem goes beyond information overload, however. Too frequently New York’s State Division of Veteran Affairs overlaps county entities, and the agencies are either at cross purposes or frequently not in communication with each other, or literally feuding over turf instead of working in unison. Rarely are these layers of bureaucracy in touch with each other, working from the same databases, or even aware that they’re offering similar services to the same constituent base.
A further problem is that there’s a fundamental lack of accountability and measurement from local services back to the state, and the study finds, “No standard procedures, practices or benchmarks. Efforts are sometimes coordinated among disparate agencies, sometimes not, and state and local departments often blame one another when things go wrong.”
Unfortunately, too, the authors find that despite a state mandate that the Division of Veterans’ Affairs maintain oversight at the county level, the division’s annual report made no mention of interaction with county Veteran’s offices. And “Interviews conducted with Veteran Service Officers from Ulster, Orange, and Putnam Counties suggested that…the state/county relationship was minimal. (One preferred it this way!) Ulster and Orange County officials reported no relationship and even described negative interactions.”
A dysfunctional VA Affairs office isn’t just harming veterans who deserve better, more coordinated treatment. It’s hurting New York taxpayers as well. A state comptroller’s study found that the state has minimal coordination effort to alert vets and their families about these benefits, and as a result veterans are often using Medicaid instead. Making sure vets are enrolled for the proper care from the proper channel, the comptroller’s study showed, “could save state and local taxpayers millions of dollars annually.”
Benjamin and Toomey’s recommendations to remedy this situation include not only the state living up to its end of the regulatory bargain, but also that these overlapping state and local offices routinize a systemic approach to Veterans Services, so that the distributive model works, with counties delivering services, but also where best practices (such as the authors found used in states as varied as Wisconsin and Alabama) are sought, measured, and where offices receive training and technology, as well as sharing data across platforms. Finally, Benjamin and Toomey find fault with the state for failing to establish both goals and benchmarks for state and regional level VA administration, with regular reporting and public findings logged and published.