NORTH ADAMS -- Providing benefits and services to the over 37,000 Massachusetts veterans who have either returned home or are expected to return home is requiring a shift in the way outreach and services are provided, according to state Secretary of Veterans' Services Coleman Nee.
"We need to ask if the system we have in place for these new veterans who are coming back is a system that works," Nee said Thursday, while speaking to James Canavan's public policy class at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. "Our system, which was set up in 1860 and is primarily still in the same state that is was after World War II, was set up primarily to address the needs of white men. Today, our fastest growing segments of veterans are women and minorities."
In addition, he said, today's veterans have different challenges, different needs and even different ways of communicating.
"We went out and listened to our new veterans," he said. "They told us that most of the time it isn't an issue of resources being available to veterans, it was an issue of access. We heard from women that they didn't feel confident in the services being provided at the VA Medical Centers, which primarily serve our older male veterans. We heard that veterans wanted to speak with veterans about benefits."
Soumaila Bance, a veteran of the Afghanistan war who recently returned home and resumed his classes at MCLA, agreed that the issues being faced by current veterans are "generational" and that access is a key problem. He said that veterans are forced to wait for services because they need to be identified before treatment.
"Why do we need to identify who our veterans are? We should know who they are," he said. "How do they get to these resources? That's the question. Veterans show up at the VA with traumatic brain injuries and are forced to wait at least four weeks to be seen by the special unit just to undergo MRI testing. When they receive the results, they are still denied benefits. I have seen this happen to my fellow soldiers. They are suffering on a daily basis."
Nee said part of the problem is the archaic system that is still in place, which relies on "paper copies" and "snail mail."
He said he's made changes to start addressing these issues during his tenure, such as requiring municipalities to have a veterans services officer to help reach out to veterans and rolling out a comprehensive state web portal, www.massvetsadvisor.org, to aid veterans in their search for benefits.
"We began looking at this when our suicide rate began to climb. We had a crisis line for vets to call. For me, if your calling that line, then we've already failed you," Nee said. "I took a team of young veterans, who were willing to learn all of our systems, and equipped them with Blackberrys and laptops. We carved the state up into regions and sent them out to find veterans. And low and behold, they started finding veterans and sending them in. We're taking the issue of ‘you don't know what it's like' off of the table."
With more outreach happening, local communities have seen the cost of veterans services accounts increase dramatically, leaving local officials with higher than expected bills to pay and the added cost of a veterans agent. The state reimburses communities 75 percent of the benefits paid out.
"We've really pushed for regionalization of veterans services offices, especially in rural communities," Nee said. "We've also increased the reimbursement for homeless and transitional veterans to 100 percent for communities. The fact is, we need to change our services to meet the needs of this generation of veterans. We need to address issues like childcare and the desire for more clinics."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email