Initiatives aim to help veterans

Veterans statewide could soon see a slew of new and expanded benefits and services, if the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs gets its way in the 2020 legislative session and beyond.

The agency is enrolling 17 legislative bills for the upcoming 60-day session, which begins in January, Al Carter, the department’s chief of staff, reported at the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce’s November breakfast meeting at Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus in Wesley Chapel.

Those priorities include greater funding and staffing for the cabinet agency, Carter said. The department of veterans affairs now has an annual budget of $150 million. It has 1,260 employees, serving Florida’s 1.5 million veterans.

Florida Department of Veterans Affairs chief of staff Al Carter was the featured guest speaker at the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce’s November breakfast meeting at Pasco- Hernando State College-Porter Campus in Wesley Chapel. (Kevin Weiss)

“The long and short of it is, we want to be a premier agency to advocate for our veterans, and receiving those benefits and services that they’ve earned as a product of their service,” Carter said.

“Billions of dollars are available for services. Let that sink in,” he said.

Some department requests include:

  • Funding to complete two new 100-plus bed veterans’ nursing homes in Port St. Lucie and Orlando
  • 104 full-time positions for the department’s Homes Division
  • Five full-time staff to expand its team of veterans’ claims examiners
  • Three positions within its Bureau of Information and Research, a new division analyzing trends in federal legislation and identifying potential voids in veterans’ benefits and services.

There’s also an effort to build upon a number of bills or laws from past legislative sessions, Carter said.

For instance, the department wants to expand funding for alternative treatment options for veterans with post-traumatic stress. It wants to go beyond counseling and prescription medications.

The veterans affairs department contracts with state colleges and universities to offer these treatments: hyperbaric oxygen treatment, physical therapy, accelerated resolution therapy, music therapy, equine therapy and service animal training therapy.

Carter, a retired Army colonel who spent 28 years in the military, noted that roughly 20 veterans commit suicide every day.

The challenges that veterans face are not “cookie-cutter in nature,” he said. As a result, “treatment for one does not necessarily reflect treatment for all.”

He added: “Whatever helps the largest number of veterans, we’re trying to do, and these alternative therapies have proven helpful in getting veterans off of those different opioids.”

The agency also is proposing an amendment to the state’s homestead tax exemption to allow the same ad valorem tax discount on homestead property for the surviving spouse of a combat-disabled veteran age 65 or older. The exemption would remain in effect for the spouse, until he or she dies.

“It’s revenue neutral to the state, so it’s a no-brainer to do this,” Carter said.

Another legislative initiative would allow medical doctors and doctor of osteopathic physicians employed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and licensed in other states to also practice and treat veterans in private medical facilities in Florida. (Doctors employed by the VA and practicing in Florida do not have to have a Florida medical license.)

Carter said the measure would provide more convenient accessible care for veterans, particularly when VA clinics close due to inclement weather, or are relocated or shut down.

“Having the ability for our doctors on the VA staff to be able to go to these (private) facilities and treat our veterans is definitely huge,” he said.

Burgess seeking to boost agency services
Carter also detailed an initiative called Forward March.

That initiative began after former State Rep. Danny Burgess, of Zephyrhills, was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to become the executive director of veterans affairs.

Under Forward March, the department assesses the needs of veterans across the state, and seeks ways to eliminate redundancy and increase collaboration in veterans services offered by businesses, community and volunteer organizations — as it pertains to housing, mental health, emergency assistance and legal matters.

Carter said early observations reveal that veterans are often unaware of how to get access to services, and that organizations offering services often are “working in silos,” instead of working together.

He explained: “There may be one person, one entity over here providing housing services and they’ve got grants to provide housing services to a variety of veterans, and then there’s another one right next door that has no clue what this other one does, and oftentimes they’re doing very similar programs. If they were joined together, imagine the amount of services that they could provide. They could double, if not triple, the amount of services for our veterans, so that’s one of the things we’re trying to key on.”

Carter also touched on some more long-range goals for the agency, spearheaded under Burgess’s leadership.

One is expanding the agency’s GI LAW (Lawyers Assisting Warriors) initiative, whereby veterans affairs contracts with some of the state’s leading law firms to provide pro bono legal services to military members. The program currently applies only to sergeants (E-5) and lower ranks, but the department hopes to ultimately expand it to all veterans.

That program is particularly helpful to the state’s homeless veteran population, Carter said, noting they oftentimes are homeless because of minor legal issues they need to resolve, but often are reluctant to seek help.

“It’s a phenomenal program,” Carter said. “We’re coming out to meet (veterans), where the rubber meets the road, and help them to get back into society.”

The department also is working to expand a program that’s designed to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment, and rehabilitation pathways for veterans involved with the criminal justice system, rather than punishment.

Burgess also has pushed to enhance the department’s online communication footprint — making its mobile app more user-friendly, and, creating Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube pages, to complement its website and Facebook page.

“(Burgess) is tech-savvy. Unfortunately I’m not,” Carter joked.

Published November 13, 2019

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