As the Afghanistan war winds down, a different battle will be more intensely waged on the home front: Can California ease the transition for veterans in a way that honors their service, gives them the best chance to succeed in civilian life and that taxpayers can afford?
A new report from the Little Hoover Commission is the latest to question whether the California Department of Veterans Affairs is up to the task, but it also presents a promising road map forward.
CalVet must deal with the state's rapidly aging population of 1.8 million veterans, already the nation's largest. It must also prepare for 35,000 more a year joining their ranks, mostly younger and more likely to be female. While the state has historically focused attention and money on its veterans homes for the destitute and disabled, the commission says CalVet needs to change its mission and put a priority on services for all vets -- the best way to help the biggest number.
That means increasing aid to county veterans services offices, but also holding them more accountable for better connecting with vets. That also means working more seamlessly with federal agencies. Both improvements could combat an appalling fact: California is losing out each year on several hundred million in federal dollars that should be going to veterans for pension and health benefits -- and that could be boosting the state economy.
With the state budget not quite as tight, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature this year increased funding for the 56 county veterans services offices by $3 million. They also allocated another $3 million to create "strike teams" to go to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offices in Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego and aid in reducing the outrageous backlog of claims for disability benefits. Little Hoover says the state must closely monitor the additional funding to see if it is worth extending past 2013-14.
The bipartisan and independent commission says that CalVet has made progress, but that many improvements were too slow and aren't fully in place.
In its response, CalVet, which has 2,600 employees and a $405 million annual budget, says its new strategic focus on veterans services is paying dividends, including better access to federal military personnel records and its selection as a test state for electronic benefit claims. CalVet Secretary Peter Gravett pledges to work with partners at all levels of government, as well as veterans advocacy groups and the private sector.