Officials with the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs are “inundated” with complaints meant for the similarly named federal agency, and they’d like the state Legislature to address the issue by changing its name.
At the department’s fiscal year 2015-16 budget hearing Wednesday, Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder proposed calling the state’s branch the “Department of Veterans Services” henceforth. That would “help eliminate some of that confusion between us and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs,” she said.
Begun in 1921 to connect veterans to federal benefits, TDVA was expanded in the 1980s to include veteran burial services. “Now, as we move forward, and under your leadership, we have expanded our focus to everything veteran,” Grinder told Gov. Bill Haslam at a budget hearing this week.
The department currently serves more than 500,000 veterans throughout Tennessee. It has “completely revamped” outreach programs this past year, providing more resources related to jobs, entrepreneurship, education, housing, and mental health services — “a whole myriad of things that are going to help that veteran in removing all the distractions that will keep them from succeeding,” Grinder said.
The number of Volunteer State veterans increased by 25,000 from 2012 to 2014, and federal government sequestration-related downsizing of U.S. military forces will likely cause an additional increase, Grinder said.
Between 350 and 600 veterans already transition out of Ft. Campbell each month, she said. Although about 75 percent of Ft. Campbell’s retirees settle here, Grinder added one-term veterans tend to move elsewhere, so the agency was pushing the state’s education and job opportunities in an effort to convince more to choose Tennessee as home.
Grinder identified one of TDVA’s “great successes” as getting the state Department of Correction to actively recruit veterans — with 283 hires since the first of the year. However, the number of veterans receiving unemployment has also increased, “particularly though in Montgomery County,” she said.
Additionally, Veterans Affairs is developing a statewide student veterans information resource to monitor higher education graduation rates, because while many former service-members enroll in college, not all graduate, Grinder said.
Through a no-cost partnership with Middle Tennessee State University, information will be gathered on how many veterans attend each university, how many graduate and what majors are pursued, Grinder said. The survey is 40 percent complete, but Grinder said she hopes it will be complete by June.
“In keeping with your ‘Drive to 55’ goals, we want to make sure that veterans, above anyone else, get that chance to attend, graduate and move on to a quality career,” Grinder said.
TDVA has also continued improving its claims-filing process, and has implemented electronic filing in all 14 field offices, Grinder said. Since January, the new e-filing system has reduced field office claim-processing times from a possible week-and-a-half to one day, she said.
However, Grinder added they have to rely on county government partners in rural areas for claims-filing assistance, only 48 percent of which are e-filing claims for reasons ranging from a lack of training to not having a computer.
Last fiscal year, the agency secured $1.9 billion in tax free federal disability, pension and education benefit dollars for veterans, Grinder said.
Grinder also informed Haslam the department is setting up five new veterans treatment courts in addition to the four currently established in Shelby, Davidson, Knox and Montgomery counties.
The department’s total preliminary budget request is $6.29 million: $5.27 million from state coffers, $770,000 from federal payments and $250,000 from other revenue.
Veterans Affairs receives $734 for each Tennessee veteran burial — up from $300 in 2011, Grinder said. This increase has helped grow the agency’s “carry forward fund,” which is used to improve existing veterans cemeteries and construct new ones.
TDVA used $534,200 of that fund — along with local and state dollars and private donations — toward a $1.3 million purchase of 132 acres in Parker’s Crossroads to construct a new state veterans cemetery. However, the agency hasn’t gone begun the cemetery construction because the federal government, who funds 100 percent of veteran cemetery construction costs, has not yet granted them full reimbursement approval.
In addition to federal reimbursements, family payments for dependent burials help the department operate and improve these cemeteries, Grinder said. However, she added those federal and family dollars last year only totaled about $1.5 million, while cemetery operating costs for that year were $2.5 million.
Grinder proposed cutting $379,400 from operational and program costs at the agency’s field offices and cemeteries to meet Haslam’s requested seven percent budget reduction. But she also noted that the department has not purchased new computers in the last four years, and instead was using surplus equipment from the Comptroller’s Office, which were not as efficient as new technology would be.