On Feb. 11, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki and I announced the first recipients of the newly-established Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Awards. This new Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) award recognizes our state partners for outstanding programs that support Veterans in their states. The awards were presented at a White House ceremony, held in conjunction with the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs (NASDVA) winter conference. VA’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and NASDVA worked together to establish this award to recognize the states’ dedication and the excellence among programs established and operated by our state partners.
Every U.S. state, district, commonwealth and territory has a sister agency to VA, and their governors are equally dedicated to supporting and assisting Veterans. These agencies, while independent from VA, are key partners in our mission to fulfill the promise of Abraham Lincoln: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”
The state agencies have a primary mission of assisting Veterans in their state with accessing and applying for federal VA care and benefits. More importantly, each state government has made additional commitments to their Veterans. From reduced or exempted state taxes, to education benefits and direct bonuses for war time Veterans, these programs represent significant investments and expenditures on behalf of state governments. I have the distinct honor of working closely with the leadership in each of these agencies to ensure VA and our state partners are in synch when it comes to supporting our Veterans.
“These outstanding programs are successful, proven initiatives being funded and run by our state partners,” said Stephanie Birdwell, acting director, VA Office of Intergovernmental Affairs “The Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award not only recognizes and highlights the most effective and efficient state programs, it also encourages other states to look to these best practices as models for delivering care and benefits to their Veterans.”
Awards were presented for programs in the following categories: Elimination of Veterans Homelessness, Elimination of the Disability Claims Backlog, Improving Access to Benefits and Services and Outstanding State Programs. We presented five awards in the four categories for achievements in 2013. Three of the established categories align with the agency priority goals outlined in VA’s strategic plan, with a fourth reserved for outstanding state programs that address other state and VA priorities
The award for programs aimed at eliminating Veterans homelessness went to the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs for its plan to eliminate Veterans homelessness. The program uses statewide Veterans housing summits to bring together various state and federal stakeholders to increase resource awareness and collaboration in the effort to eliminate homelessness among Washington Veterans.
The Texas Veterans Commission for the establishment of Strike Force and fully developed claims teams received the award for programs aimed at eliminating the disability claims backlog. In 2012 the Texas Veterans Commission requested and received an initial appropriation of $1.5 million to assist the federal VA in reducing the claims backlog in Texas. The state formed two eight-member Strike Force teams and five-member fully developed claims teams that operate out of the Houston and Waco regional offices. Additional staff was deployed to various underserved areas and to hold a series of “Beat the Backlog” events throughout the state. Texas was the first state to commit significant state resources to augment VA staff in order to expedite the reduction of the disability claims backlog.
With a second award for the Washington Department of Veteran Affairs, the state was honored for its Veterans benefits enhancement program, which pairs the state Veterans Affairs department with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Together, the partnership identifies and facilitates Veterans and their dependents, who are receiving state social and health services, to access the maximum federal benefits for which they are eligible. The goal of the program is to transition Veterans currently receiving Medicaid and other state benefits to VA’s health care system and other federally funded benefits and health care services.
Two awards were presented in the category of Outstanding State Programs. The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs was recognized for the Alabama Veterans Treatment Court Task Force. Alabama established the first state-level task force to develop a statewide Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) program. The VTC Task Force advocates for the coordinated planning, growth and expansion of the VTC programs in municipal, district, and circuit court systems throughout the state.
Finally, the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs was awarded with the Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award for creating the Illinois Joining Forces. Illinois Joining Forces is a statewide, public-private network of more than 150 organizations working together to improve services to Illinois’ military and veteran communities.
It was a pleasure and an honor to be involved with the creation and presentation of these awards. It is important for VA to recognize the incredible work being done at the state level. We all have the same goal of ensuring all Veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned through honorable service.