Name-Change for State Veterans Department Approved by Senate Committee

The administrators who run Tennessee’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs want to distance themselves from the federal agency of the same name.

A proposal to change the official moniker of the state department to “Department of Veterans Services” easily cleared its first hurdle in the General Assembly Tuesday.

The Senate State & Local Government Committee passed SB0116 with no discussion as part of its consent calendar. The administration-backed bill is scheduled to be heard by the House State Government Subcommittee Wednesday.

The re-branding was suggested late last year by the agency’s head, Many-Bears Grinder, during her department’s preliminary budget pitch to Gov. Bill Haslam.

Sharing a nearly identical name with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — even though they’re entirely separate entities — has generated a lot of confusion, wasted time and frustration, both for veterans seeking services and the state department’s employees, Grinder said. The TDVA’s purpose is to connect Tennessee veterans with benefits provided by the federal agency, as well as to provide burial services.

The emergence over the past year of scandals that have afflicted the federal agency have only exacerbated the problems, with the state being “inundated” with complaints meant for the feds.

In April of 2014, news broke that about 40 vets had died waiting for care at the Phoenix VA Hospital, prompting an internal investigation by the VA into the Veterans Health Administration system. That investigation found that upwards of 120,000 veterans had not received timely care, and a criminal investigation was launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Eric Shinseki, the head of the VA at the time, also resigned as a result of the scandal. Robert McDonald, the current head of the VA who took over amid the scandal, was recently discovered to have lied when he told a homeless veteran in Los Angeles that he had also served in the Army Special Forces.

The federal government’s problems delivering aid and services to those in need who served in the armed forces are hitting home here in Tennessee. In September of last year, the TDVA and the Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services announced that suicides by veterans were on the rise, and that since 1990, veterans made up about 21 percent of all of the suicide deaths in the state.

The Tennessee Military Department’s commander told Haslam late last year that in an effort to bridge the gap in post-deployment counseling, five years ago his department had begun providing outreach to soldiers returning home from combat zones. Maj. Gen. Max Haston said his department is trying to pick up some of the slack. Since 2013 more than 600 current and former service members received counseling, and since 2011 more than 80 guard members have been talked down from hurting themselves, he said.

And during the Legislature’s special session to consider Haslam’s proposed Medicaid expansion plan, supporters touted an estimated 25,000-30,000 Tennessee veterans who lack health coverage through either Obamacare’s insurance exchanges or the VA.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican who sponsored the governor’s failed “Insure Tennessee” plan, argued that responsibility for help those who served is shared by the state. “Maybe they need a hand up right now with their health care coverage,” said McCormick. “And maybe they’re suffering from some problems that they encountered while they were in the military.”