National Veterans Policy Discussed

Deborah GioiaDeborah Gioia, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, talks to attendees of the symposium “Enhancing the well-being of America’s veterans and their families: A call to action for a national veterans policy.” The meeting was held at the NASW national office in June.

Diverse disciplines convened at NASW’s national office in June to discuss the possibility of drafting a covenant for the nation’s veterans.

The symposium, “Enhancing the well-being of America’s veterans and their families: A call to action for a national veterans policy,” provided a platform to exchange expert feedback on the challenges and potential solutions to improve the lives of veterans and their families.

The University of Southern California School of Social Work and the NASW Social Work Policy Institute hosted the event, which brought together those representing veterans, health, mental health, family services, universities, policymakers, educators and advocates.

Anthony Hassan, director of the University of Southern California Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, said he plans to take what was suggested at the gathering and form it into a potential covenant for veterans.

“The British and Canadians have a covenant — why not us?” Hassan said. Such a document could be a catalyst to gain community, philanthropic and public support to better serve veterans and their families, he said.

“This would be a template for (veterans’ advocates) to stand behind to leverage change,” Hassan said.

At the event, experts from government, national organizations, service providers and research offered insight into the complex world of veterans affairs.

Phillip Carter, director of Military, Veterans and Society Program for the Center for a New American Security, told participants that the Dept. of Veterans Affairs is the second largest cabinet agency. It provided care to 6.3 million veterans in 2012.

The biggest issue challenging the VA today is addressing the backlog of service claims, he said.

Part of the challenge is volume. Carter said only one in five veterans from World War II filed a claim with the VA. In contrast to today, 50 percent to 60 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans file a claim.

The Veterans Benefit Administration, a subagency of the VA, is facing a large claims backlog with 865,256 claims pending, of which 575,825 are over 125 days old. They are mostly claims for disability compensation, Carter said.

“We are an all-volunteer force and these are our earned benefits,” he said. “Over the next 30 to 50 years and beyond, the VA budget is going up while the number of veterans goes down.”

Carter said the VA is doing a good job, but “clearly we could do better … claims are getting better — thanks to technology. (Claims) should go down over the next six months.”

“Access to care and benefits remains a challenge,” Carter said. “Broadly, the VA only has capacity to serve those serving.”

That may change moving forward, however. He noted the enactment of the Affordable Care Act will likely affect the VA and Defense Department in their provision of primary care. It’s unclear at the moment how that may happen, he said.

He asked attendees to share their strategies in helping veterans.

“The VA cannot be the agent of change in the scope of its authority,” Carter said.

The majority of veterans returning home from recent war activities will need help with some level of post-traumatic stress, he said, and local agencies are the ideal places of care.

Social worker Dorinda Williams, director of Military Family Projects at Zero to Three, focused her discussion on attention to veterans’ family needs.

She said the largest percent of children of active duty members are between birth and 5 years old. There are more than 360,000 children ages 0-3 for active duty members.

Williams said it is important to address the mental well-being of veterans who have young children. “They need to be emotionally in tune, to understand what their children are feeling and thinking,” she said. “They have to be responsive.”

Approximately one quarter of new veterans with children are single, and nearly half of female new veterans with children are single.

“We must wrap our arms around the families so they can wrap their kids,” Williams said, noting that Zero to Three is adapting materials to better target veterans and their families, not just those still in the military.

She urged attendees to research gaps in youngest child care for veterans.

“This is an issue we have to think about now and in the long term,” she said.

The meeting also addressed direct service to veterans.

Christopher Ford, west regional director for the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told attendees that while interagency efforts are noble, the silo of information from each agency is difficult to break down.

Federal agencies are “too big and too complex” to promote interactivity, he said.

“I think local communities will embrace the returning veterans — the success we see is in the nonprofit, local government and businesses that can touch local lives,” Ford said. “I think you need to look at ‘what can I do?’ and ‘what can nonprofits and service providers do?” he said.

Ford told participants they have the best opportunity to promote change and offer veterans new hope.

“Use your efforts to make your programs outstanding,” he said.

Attendees also heard from representatives from the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, the National Institute for Mental Health, and the office of U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., of the Veterans Job Caucus.

Participants conducted breakout action plans and targeted recommendations. Crucial discussions focused on balancing federal roles and responsibilities with those of state and local governments and community agencies and how veterans themselves need to be key partners in planning and service implementation.

Joan Levy Zlotnik, director the NASW Social Work Policy Institute, urged attendees to supply her and Hassan with more information about other stakeholders involved in veterans’ issues so that a potential veterans’ covenant could easily be adaptable to audiences at local, state and federal levels.

“We were pleased to bring together such a rich group of people,” she said.

More information: SWPI Releases Report from Veterans Policy Symposium.