AUGUSTA, Maine — Of the roughly 150,000 veterans living in Maine, 40-50 percent don’t use services that they’re entitled to through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA is working to change that, according to Dr. Tommy Sowers, the department’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs. Sowers visited Maine Wednesday, touring the VA’s Togus medical center in Augusta and convening a roundtable discussion with area veterans groups and officials at the nearby Maine Veterans Home.
“You can’t offer benefits to somebody who doesn’t know that they’re eligible,” he said in a telephone interview following the morning’s events. “That’s clearly something the VA needs to do better.”
A recent analysis by McClatchy Newspapers found that more than half of American veterans reported having little or no understanding of the benefits they are entitled to, even as the VA has stepped up efforts to link returning soldiers with help and services.
Younger veterans who served in the post-9/11 war period were better versed in their benefits, but 40 percent still said they had little to no understanding of them. Among all veterans, 59 percent described their understanding of available benefits as “a little” or “not at all,” according to the analysis, which examined the VA‘s 2010 National Survey of Veterans and state benefits data.
“At various points in a veteran’s life, benefits become much more salient,” Sowers said. “We need to make sure the message that we’re delivering to, say, the Korean War veteran is a little bit different than the message delivered to an Afghanistan veteran.”
The VA has launched a national outreach campaign, partnering with the Ad Council and a professional advertising firm, Sowers said. The measure of success will be whether more veterans access services, he said.
“We want to make sure that the outreach doesn’t look like the commercials that I used to see when I was in the Army, the public service announcements,” Sowers said.
Sowers, who earned his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, deployed to Iraq twice as a Green Beret with the U.S. Army. He previously served as senior advisor to the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
James Laflin, commander for Maine AMVETS, said the VA has improved its outreach to veterans, but many still resist tapping into benefits.
“A lot of the Vietnam vets and older vets are what I would call either too stubborn or too proud to even ask,” said Laflin, who attended the morning roundtable. “They don’t want anything to do with it. When they reach the point where they need something, they start looking around to see what they’re eligible for. In a lot of cases, it’s too late.”
In November, a new federal law took effect requiring that all departing service members participate in a series of benefit sessions, which previously were often optional.
Veterans are eligible for a wide array of benefits, including medical care, lifetime payments for disabilities suffered during military service, life insurance, and home loan programs.
In addition to its outreach efforts, the VA is also working to process claims more quickly. Last year, the time it took the VA to process disability claims jumped by nearly 40 percent to 262 days, up from 188 days in fiscal year 2011.
Togus has served as a model for its efficient processing of claims, as well as its relationship with the wider community, Sowers said.
Laflin credited coordination in Maine among Togus, veterans groups, the Maine Army National Guard, and Gov. Paul LePage’s office.