Opinion: Helping veterans: Lawmakers leave federal dollars on the table

Amid the seemingly endless disagreements in Sacramento, everyone agrees on three things: Californians are struggling with a historic recession, the state faces a huge deficit, and it needs every penny it can find to balance its budget. So, why on earth would the state turn its back on the County Veterans Services Officers (CVSO’s) program, a little known but highly successful program that pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into our economy each year, helps generate tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue and saves the state millions more in health and social service spending?

California has 2.1 million veterans, more than any other state in the nation, yet Texas and Florida with fewer veterans bring in more federal veterans benefit dollars than California.  In fact California is ranked 33rd in the nation in percentage of veterans receiving veteran’s benefits.

Incredibly, as our political leaders try to close a $19 billion budget gap, the CVSO program is in danger of losing $7 million in funding – money that would help invest almost $700 million in new federal veterans’ assistance into California’s economy in the 2010-11 fiscal year.  That’s a return of $100 in new income for every dollar spent by the state. When the economic multiplier impact of five times (5x) is taken into account, the return on the state’s investment in the CVSO program is $600 to $1!  Who in good faith can argue with those results?
At the same time, the CVSO program saves the state money by shifting the cost of health care and social services for veterans from the state to the federal government. Those savings free millions in state dollars to provide vital services that are now on the budget chopping block in Sacramento.

Even without these financial benefits, the CVSO is a program that deserves our support. Day in and day out, County Veterans Service Officers sit across the table with veterans and their families and provide assistance to the most deserving of Californians:  the men and women who have served our country in the military, including thousands returning from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s new Operation Welcome Home seeks to ease the transition back to civilian life for the more than 30,000 men and women who come home to California from military service each year by providing information about veteran’s benefits. County Veterans Service Officers are an essential part of Operation Welcome Home. They reach out and help these new veterans take advantage of the benefits available to them from the federal government. Operation Welcome Home also reaches out to elderly, low income World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans, many of whom do not realize they are even eligible for federal benefits long after they left the service.

Qualifying for these Federal Veterans Benefits is a complex process.  It is not like applying for Social Security.  Veterans sometimes have to provide Military and health records some of which can be up to 50 years old.  As government employees CVSO’s have access to these records through the Veterans Administration speeding up the claims process where the average veteran could wait several months or more to get copies of these required records.

These dedicated public servants understand the Veterans Administration system, and they deliver the goods for our veterans and our state: $2.7 billion in federal assistance for 1.3 million California veterans and dependents since 2000. The CVSO program receives no federal money for filing these claims.  Counties have provided more than 85 percent of the funding, but now tight budgets are forcing counties to cut back. Statewide, the CVSO offices have lost 25 percent of their 160 positions. More county cutbacks are looming in the coming fiscal year as counties struggle with additional budget cuts.  Recently Sacramento County considered abolishing their entire CVSO office, but then they realized CVSO’s are an income generator for the county.  Consequently, the office was left fully staffed.

These cutbacks come at the worst possible moment – as thousands of California troops are returning home after risking their lives defending freedom in faraway lands.  Many veterans now have to wait five to six weeks for an appointment to see a CVSO to initiate the claims process.

Gov. Schwarzenegger recognizes the need to move ahead with full speed.  That’s why he included $8.4 million in new CVSO funding in his May Budget Revise. Without this money, veterans will be forced to wait even longer for their benefits. They would not be the only losers. So would the state. Veterans would turn to the state for medical and social service assistance as they wait for their federal benefits.

The state’s economy will also suffer as the flow of federal assistance slows. On average, a veteran who qualifies for benefits receives nearly $13,000 a year in veteran’s benefits – money that quickly goes to work in their communities. In the 2008-09 fiscal year, County Veterans Services Offices helped bring in $257 million in new federal assistance, and that money keeps coming in year after year throughout the life of the veteran.   Often the spouse may even receive benefits after the veteran passes if there is an existing claim.

We’re talking about a great deal of money here.  Are we going to leave it on the table and walk away from our veterans? Or are we going to decide that $700 million in direct benefits is a terrific return on an $8.4 million investment?  It’s really not a difficult choice.

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