Advocates have suggested that veterans benefits counselors are needed as a government function to inform veterans contacting them of the often complex and time-intensive steps needed to file a disability claim with the VA, to access or utilize VA benefits locally, and to access NY State and NYC veterans benefits within the city. This initiative received strong support from survey respondents. A total of 80.24% of respondents indicated that they view this as either essential or very important.
Background. During Commissioner Sutton’s 90-day review, she put forth to the borough presidents an idea of placing veterans benefits counselors in each of their offices. The Robin Hood Foundation had previously funded three veterans benefits counselors at MOVA for one year in anticipation that the city would continue the program on budget in subsequent years. Funding for three veterans benefits counselors was proposed in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, but was not approved in the final budget. Commissioner Sutton stated in a hearing in May 2015 that veterans benefits counselors are no longer needed due to significant reduction in the backlog of pending VA claims and the ongoing benefits counselors provided by VSOs.
Need for Veterans Benefits Counselors. Veterans often need help to navigate a system of federal, state, and city veterans benefits and services that can be highly complex, time-consuming, and frustrating for non-experts to understand and learn about. Government offers these earned benefits and services to veterans, yet government offices still have a long way to go in streamlining accessibility, making all of these benefits and services known to veterans, and helping veterans to understand the choices and processes involved. Eligibility requirements can also be difficult to understand and navigate, and may require the intervention of government officials to access lost or destroyed military records, especially if the veteran left service decades ago. The need for veterans benefits counselors is ongoing, especially as new veterans return home from recent conflicts, as older veterans become newly eligible for health claims related to Agent Orange or other past injuries, as aging veterans need assistance with recalibrating existing benefits and applying for new services related to aging and deteriorating health, and as outreach efforts continue to find under-served veterans who need help with accessing the benefits and services they’ve earned.
VSO Veterans Benefits Counselors. Several veteran service organizations (VSOs) offer assistance and/or case management for veterans seeking services or assistance with filing claims with the VA. The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) all offer counselors and assistance to veterans requesting help with VA benefits. Other nonprofits and veteran organizations in NYC help to connect veterans and family members with services and benefits available to them as well. Additionally, the NYC-based Unite Us, as part of the NYC Serves initiative funded by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), has developed an online platform and telephone coordination center that connects veterans and family members to benefits, services, and other resources in NYC.
Limitations of VSO Veterans Benefits Counselors. It must be noted that while VSOs provide a tremendous service in assisting veterans, they often exclude individuals if they do not have the discharge status or time in service required for the organization’s definition of “veteran.” It is therefore the role of city government to provide outreach to under-served veterans, especially those not served by VSOs, and assist them with attaining federal, state, and city services and resources for which they can qualify.
Veterans Benefits Counselors in Government Offices. Counties across NY State and other jurisdictions provide veterans benefits counselors. Aside from NY State Division of Veterans Affairs counselors in a few VHA locations, there is currently no equivalent in NYC or borough government. Veterans benefits counselors are proven investments for state and local governments, as they bring an influx of federal dollars into the local economy as well as providing overall long-term savings for government services that would otherwise be provided to individuals not served by the VA. When veterans benefits go unclaimed, veterans and their dependents essentially leave federal dollars on the table due to lack of information and assistance.
Veterans Service Officers Announcement. On June 22, 2015, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito announced that $335,000 in new funding would be allocated for a team of Veterans Service Officers to be made available across the five boroughs. It must be noted that this announcement is a reversal of the de Blasio Administration’s statement in May that veterans benefits counselors were not needed, and comes after persistent pressure between April and June of 2015 by the NYC Veterans Alliance, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and other outspoken advocates to restore the three veterans benefits counselors slashed from the FY 2015 budget. At the time of this report’s release, there was no further information available about this initiative.
Respondent Comments. Comments from many respondents were offered on the subject of veterans benefits counselors and access to veterans benefits and services:
- Service Officers are needed in all Boroughs; these and all Veterans Affairs positions should be filled by veterans.
- Make available to Veterans information important for them to receive resources available for them when needed.
- Veterans need more guidance as to what benefits they are entitled to. Veterans feel neglected.
- The existence of a system for outreach to every returning veteran, not VA based, to maximize unthreatening linkage to ease readjustment process.
- Veterans often distrust government excesses. A careful balance must exist between available veterans services and an excessive governmental "presence" in delivery of such services.
- Being a Vietnam Veteran and all Vietnam vets did not receive the proper care when we came home. So I will do whatever I can to help our young vets and old vets to make sure they get the proper help and not be forgotten like the Vietnam Vets. I believe any worthwhile program no matter how big or how small is extremely important for our vets of today.
- Providing effective services for women veterans.
- Veterans who qualify for benefits should not have to get the run around to obtain those benefits. It should almost be one stop shopping to take care of veterans needs.
- I would like to see veteran's services of substance, not a verbal pat on the back as we get pushed to the rear. The priorities should be health care and suicide prevention, housing (especially for homeless), employment and childcare, education, and then all the other stuff.
- Would like to see an increase in services provided to pre-9/11veterans regardless of discharge status as well as supportive services to family members and significant others (such as support groups). Once again, to veterans of all eras, family, and non-married significant others.
- Veteran related services should not be duplicating VA services but rather adding to them.
- Process and programs that are aggressively seeking out the veterans and indexing their needs. The ones that need the most help are the ones that have the most to lose and the most difficulty in getting help.
- I think it is important to have support services for veterans readily available and also well-advertised. It's not a good resource unless people know it's there.
- More programs referring to woman veterans single mother struggling veterans woman who has experience sexual assault recognized within the gov level.
Recommendations. The announcement that a team of Veterans Service Officers will be added to MOVA is welcome news, and an indicator that NYC government recognizes the critical role that NYC government must have in ensuring all NYC veterans are able to access the benefits they have earned and the care owed to them for injuries incurred during their period of military service. We fully support the prompt implementation of these Veterans Service Officers, and make the following further recommendations:
- MOVA must ensure that all Veterans Service Officers are VA-certified, qualifying them with the knowledge and understanding needed to manage complex VA application processes and timelines. They also must have comprehensive knowledge of how these benefits interact with state and city programs, as well as a thorough understanding of services available from city agencies and nonprofits in NYC.
- MOVA should consult with borough presidents, the City Council Veterans Committee, and local VSOs to determine where veterans benefits counselors can be made most accessible to veterans in need.
- MOVA should make full use of print and online media as well as social media to inform as many NYC veterans, service members, and their families as possible of how and where they can reach these Veterans Service Officers.
- MOVA should provide annual, detailed reporting of the number of veterans, service members, and family members reached by Veterans Service Officers, and the outcomes and assistance provided to these individuals. An example of adequate reporting is provided by the San Diego County Veterans Service Office.
 See page 27 of this report for more information about the veterans benefits counselors cut from the FY 2015 budget.
 See pages 33-36 of this report for the specific needs of aging veterans in NYC.
 See pages 71-75 of this report for information about different definitions of “veteran.”
 Detailed reporting of services provided by the Veterans Service Office is in the San Diego County Adopted Plan: http://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/dam/sdc/auditor/pdf/adoptedplan_14-16_hhsa.pdf