On the morning of Feb. 22, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald attended the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs (NASDVA) Mid-Winter Conference in Alexandria, Virginia. This is the second time he has attended NASDVA’s annual mid-winter to announce the recipients of the Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Awards. The awards were created in 2012 by a historic memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NASDVA and VA to recognize state-implemented best practices that other states could replicate.
Along with presenting the Pillars of Excellence Awards and delivering remarks on VA’s 2016 priorities, McDonald also co-signed a renewed MOA that increases the level of commitment and more accurately reflects the MyVA transformation that VA is undergoing as it moves from a rules-based organization, to a principles-based organization.
NASDVA has agreed to assist the VA with this transformation at the state level. With its combined $10 billion of resources, NASDVA is the second only to VA in providing benefits and services to our nation’s Veterans. The partnership will provide an opportunity to provide seamless transition from state to federal benefits.
NASDVA’s Responsibilities Across the States
State directors of Veterans Affairs interact with VA directors and staff at the local level on a daily basis. State Directors oversee 150 state Veterans facilities with more than 30,000 Veterans home and domiciliary beds. State directors also oversee 97 state cemeteries, which complement VA’s 134 national cemeteries and account for one in five Veteran burials. NASDVA, through its state and county Veteran service officers, greatly contributed to the effort of reducing the claims backlog from a peak of 611,000 claims in March 2013 to fewer than 100,000 today; in many cases working alongside VA employees and ensuring timely delivery of benefits through the Fully Developed Claims initiative and state funded backlog strike forces. By strengthening its partnership with NASDVA, VA is ensuring the maximum use and coordination of federal and state resources to best serve our nation’s Veterans and their families.
The Pillars of Excellence Awards ceremony is an opportunity for VA to recognize outstanding state programs and initiatives as best practices. This year there were five winners of seven 2016 Pillar of Excellence Awards in the following categories: 1) Improve Veteran Access to VA Benefits and Services, 2) Innovative State Program, and 3) Eliminate Veteran Homelessness.
The California Department of Veterans Affairs was awarded two Pillars awards for 1) creating a Women’s Veterans Outreach Program and 2) the Veterans Housing and Homelessness Prevention Program (VHHP). The State of California allocated nearly $290,000 to create the Division for Women Veterans Affairs focused on direct outreach, education and community partnerships. Since January 2014, over 35,000 women Veterans created a myCalVet profile and have applied for state and federal benefits and services. In June 2014, California voters overwhelmingly approved the $600 million bond measure to house Veterans. The California projects fund approximately 4,800 new Veteran housing units. Since these funds can support housing Veterans and their families, California expects to house approximately 7,000 people.
The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency was also awarded two 2) Pillars Awards for 1) Michigan Veterans Resource Service Center (MVRSC) and 2) the Veterans Community Action Teams (VCAT). The MVRSC is the first statewide program in the nation to offer 24/7/365 assistance to Veterans and family members by partnering with a statewide 2-1-1 network, regional Veterans Community Action Teams (VCATs) and accredited Veteran Service Officers. The one-stop program connects Veterans to federal, state and local resources and services through a toll-free phone number, 800-MICH-VET (800-642-4838), that is answered by live call center agents who are Veterans themselves or related to a Veteran. The Michigan VCATs rally all community providers to one cause – implementing a no-wrong-door philosophy in serving Veterans. It is designed to be efficient, sustainable, and low cost because it organizes and mobilizes the community providers to do more-effectively together what they already do separately.
The Nevada Department of Veterans Services received an Innovative State Programs Pillar Award for the Veterans Advocate Program. Historically, Nevada’s budget only allowed for the employment of 24 accredited, active Veteran Service Officers (VSO) for a state with over 300,000 Veterans, or in other words, one VSO for every 12,500 Veterans. Nevada created the Veterans Advocate Program to bridge this gap by training volunteers throughout the state with the right information. This program affords VSO’s the ability to have volunteers operate in highly rural areas communities that have had, until now, very little access to information on the benefits they have earned.
The North Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs (NDDVA) was recognized with an Improving Veteran Access to VA Benefits and Services Pillar Awarded for the Vietnam Vets Agent Orange Outreach. During the North Dakota 2013 legislative session, HB 1405 was introduced, appropriating $50,000 to the NDDVA to use as a grant to identify and assist Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA)-ND to conduct round-table outreach events with Vietnam Veterans throughout the state, purchase billboards to provide information about illnesses associated with Agent Orange exposure, and how to get help from the VA. NDDVA committed VSO representation and VVA provided a Veteran to speak at the events, as Vietnam Veterans respond most favorably to fellow Vietnam Veterans. NDDVA set a goal to conduct at least one round-table event in each of North Dakota’s 53 counties over the next biennium. So far, this program has signed up hundreds of Vietnam Veterans for VA care.
The Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA) was awarded an Innovative State Program Pillars Award for the Incarcerated Veterans Initiative – a pilot program designed to provide a seamless transition for the most isolated and at-risk Veteran offenders from prison to the community. This initiative focuses on improving post-incarceration Veteran outcomes, reducing recidivism, and reducing and preventing homelessness and poverty among the Veteran population.
Raleigh Contreras serves as the Special Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA) at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. Raleigh is an OIF Veteran and currently serves as a Civil Affairs Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve.