Auditor says California should do more to help veterans get federal benefits

California is home to more military veterans than any other state. The state Department of Veterans Affairs is supposed to help those vets get the benefits they’ve earned.

But there are questions about whether it’s doing a good job now – or will do a good job when thousands of vets come home to California after their service is done.

Nearly 9 percent of all vets in the United States – about 2 million – live in California. That number will swell as 240,000 men and women return to their home state after they’ve served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Burt McChesney heads the California Association of Veterans Service Agencies. The Vietnam veteran says the state government should act now to anticipate the needs of those returning veterans.

"Some 30 to 40 percent will come back with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, or military sexual trauma," McChesney said. "That’s 95,000 suffering from issues that will create for them barriers to employment and successful reintegration."

McChesney’s nonprofit coalition helps homeless veterans get off the streets and back into the community. He says some of the veterans who’ll soon be back in California will need mental health and drug rehab counseling, job training, and housing.

Failure to connect returning veterans with help could create another generation of homeless vets McChesney warns.

"We had at one point 80,000 to 90,000 veterans homeless from the Vietnam era because we didn’t get ahead of their mental health and substance abuse and all the related issues and criminal justice issues. And we let them die on the streets–" McChesney broke off. Through tears he said, "We don’t want to do that again."

Assemblywoman Mary Salas agrees. The San Diego Democrat who chairs the Assembly Committee on Veteran Affairs says, "This is what it’s all about, is making sure that we provide them [veterans] with the resources they need for a successful transition back into civilian life."

Salas says California’s Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t doing a good enough job of that. Only 12 percent of the state’s veterans actually collect the benefits they’re due.

A report by the National Association of Veteran District Offices ranks California 35th in the nation for securing federal benefits, like disability payments or help with job training and placement.

"The question is why has California failed to engage the veteran population and get them tied into these benefits?" Salas asks. The assemblywoman requested an audit to find out why.

State auditor Elaine Howle had this answer: "A primary obstacle is lack of awareness."

Howle says California's problem is that, "We’re not collaborating with locals. We’re not collaborating with state agencies to really develop a good process for informing veterans of the benefits that are available to them."

Howle says the state should work closely with veterans service officers in each county who connect vets with federal benefits.

The state is starting to do that, but Howle says the counties need to provide more data about how many vets need benefits – and which benefits they need.

The auditor also says the state Department of Veterans Affairs should push the federal government to cut red tape.

"We found on average it was taking the federal VA 162 days to approve or deny a claim to make a decision on a claim," Howle says. "That’s a long time for a veteran to wait to determine whether or not he or she is going to receive benefits."

Elaine Howle says her audit found that California Veterans Affairs officials haven’t complained at all about federal paperwork delays.

Assemblywoman Mary Salas says she’ll keep after the state Department of Veterans Affairs to fix the problems highlighted in Howle’s audit.

Salas says getting veterans the benefits they’ve earned is the least that California can do to repay them for their service.

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