Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch instructs staff to go “above and beyond” to find solutions to problems with providing veterans’ services.
CLEARWATER – For months, they came to Pinellas County Commission meetings, speaking during the public comment segment, asking that officials reconsider changes to veterans’ services.
Each time, they were told there was a misunderstanding. The changes would actually make things better. Then they were given a chance to sit down with Health and Human Services Bureau Director Gwendolyn Warren so she could explain what was happening.
On paper, the changes looked good – more service for less money. More locations, more support staff and greater efficiencies in service delivery. But, the complaints continued.
Finally, commissioners got the message after a large crowd that included representatives from the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs showed up to speak Jan. 29.
Commissioners then ordered staff to get to work to try to fix a situation that Commission Chair Ken Welch admitted could be the result of taking budget cuts too far.
Before those advocating the veterans’ position were allowed to speak, Welch asked County Administrator Bob LaSala to provide facts surrounding what he described as a “very contentious” issue. LaSala asked Warren to explain the situation.
Warren provided a brief summary of the reorganization of veterans programs that resulted from the commission’s strategic review of county services. She said changes were made to ensure Health and Human Services was operating at maximum efficiency in providing core services. Commissioners asked staff to address the growing number of homeless veterans. But, Warren said, no additional money was allocated to do the job.
Staff felt the best solution was a reorganization and coordination of the county’s veterans services with services provided to the homeless. Warren said staff looked at a variety of service models, but had to keep within legal parameters. By law, veterans seeking to claim benefits must be assisted by certified Veterans Services Officers.
In the end, staff decided to close the single office that had served veterans for years and move it across the hall into the Health and Human Services facility. Personnel also would be assigned to H&HS offices in other parts of the county. The biggest difference would be sharing of support personnel between H&HS and the veterans program, Warren said.
She talked about a number of rumors that had circulated since staff began to implement the changes. She said one was that the service would be outsourced to a private provider, “which is not true.” Another rumor was that noncertified staff would be providing veterans services, which “is not true. That would be a violation of law.”
“Some (rumors) have gone further with those suggesting that the efforts to expand and enhance services were really a shutdown of services if Health and Human Services took over,” she said.
She said veterans services had been integrated into H&HS in 2003, but “before they were not under the same roof.”
Warren also has a staffing problem. Two VSO positions are vacant as well as the position of senior VSO. She said job offers had recently been made for the two VSO openings.
“We had five VSOs and we will have five,” she said.
She said despite the rumors, only one of the three – the senior VSO – had been “dismissed,” the other two moved on to new jobs.
She said the administrative assistant to the senior VSO, who has worked in veterans services for 20 years, had been training the shared support personnel on how to handle calls. She said veterans services were fully operational in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. She said renovations to the Lealman and Tarpon Springs offices were done and both locations would soon be staffed. She said staff also would be located in the recently reopened health department clinic in Clearwater.
She said H&HS staff had followed recommendations to work with veterans organizations, “but they really didn’t get the message and issues continue to come up.”
“I believe from my perspective we have added significant resources,” she said.
The other side
In 1988, the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs was created as a separate agency with only one purpose – to serve veterans, said Mike Prendergast, executive director of the FDVA office based in Largo. He said with 95,000 veterans, Pinellas County had the third highest population in the state. Those veterans receive more than $336 million in benefits each year.
“You have an important role in serving local veterans with their benefits,” he said.
He explained that VSOs had to be trained professionals, undergo annual training and provide 1,000 hours of support each year. He said it was a VSO’s job to understand the claims process, keep up with new rules and all federal and state laws.
“They’re a very specialized group of men and women unlike any others,” he said.
Prendergast pointed to records showing that 25 percent fewer claims were processed in Pinellas in 2012.
“Last year, you dropped in production (of claims processed) in the last four months,” he said.
FDVA staff believes if the county’s changes go through, less claims will be processed in the future, potentially costing the local economy $1.1 billion. More importantly, the needs of local veterans won’t be met.
“These are earned benefits. They are paid for and they are not getting them,” Prendergast said. “They were earned on the field of battle.”
Alene Tarter, FDVA director of benefits and assistance, said she met with Warren last year.
“It was very one-sided,” Tarter said. “She was defending the use of non-veterans to assist veterans. I explained to her that it (VSO) had to be a veteran, a wartime veteran, trained according to state and federal laws.”
Tarter said the new hires Warren talked about would not be able to go to work until they were trained and tested.
Meanwhile, Pinellas County’s veterans are experiencing long delays in service.
“They are behind 400 calls and I’m getting those calls,” she said.
The two remaining VSOs are unable to visit nursing homes or hospice facilities.
“My office has taken that up,” she said. “People she (Warren) wants to help the case managers, they cannot access the protected databases. They’re unsupervised and not working for an accredited VSO. The two (VSOs) there now, this is not their fault, this is a management problem.”
Tarter said changes were being made to serve a small number of homeless veterans, about 400, compared to the 95,000 who live in Pinellas and their families. She said five VSOs were really too few to serve the population and the two left on the job could not possibly provide the service needed.
She estimated that it would be at least six months before the new hires could go to work. The next training course is scheduled in March. Then they have to be tested and wait for their certification paperwork to come through.
“We’re here to help,” she said. “But your veterans deserve better than this. They can’t get help. Staff isn’t returning phone calls. If you go to the office, you may or may not get help. They sign on the line that they are willing to give up their life to serve their county. This is a sad state of affairs.”
Tarter also said it was good that two people were being hired, but it was critical to fill the senior VSO position.
“You have to have a manager, and hopefully that person was accredited in the past or you can hire someone with accreditation and just needs training to catch up,” she said.
However, she admitted that it was difficult to find trained accredited people to fill VSO positions.
Daphni Austin, community and veteran liaison at Suncoast Hospice, said many of the veterans “she has had the honor to serve” often have a short time left to live, and some had never applied for benefits relating to their military service.
Up until about November 2012, response time for those veterans applying had been 24 hours or less. Now, it is six to eight weeks or more, she said.
“Our patients don’t have the benefit of the luxury of time,” she said. “One died before the initial phone call was returned, which caused undue emotional and financial hardship for the widow. They need to fill out the paperwork while they are alive. They can’t release records by law after death.”
She said the inability for VSOs to do on-site visits make it difficult for patients who often are not ambulatory and can’t get to the office on their own or spend hours waiting to be seen. And they can’t get through on phone calls, she added.
“I’m not a veteran, but I am an advocate,” she said. “These men and women swore to protect our country even unto death. They are not looking for a handout, but that is the way they are treated. It’s an embarrassing the way they are treated.”
Commissioner Karen Seel asked if Suncoast Hospice had a VSO.
“No, and we wouldn’t need one if the county did it,” Austin said. “For 35 years we’ve received support. Our patients are trying to get through but dying before they can. The two remaining VSOs are working above and beyond and their customer service is outstanding but they can’t humanly take care of all the veterans.”
Commission seeks solutions
“Clearly, we have a problem that needs to be addressed,” Welch said. “Staff was asked to work smarter with fewer resources, but this is one area we probably cut too much.”
More than a dozen veterans also spoke to commissioners about the problem urging them to do something to fix it.
LaSala said VSO positions had not been cut from the budget and would be filled. He said staff had been actively recruiting to fill the three vacancies.
“I don’t know what else we can do,” he said.
“There is a sense of urgency on this,” Welch said. “We need to go above and beyond.”
LaSala said staff would begin to search for certified people to fill in while the new hires were trained.
“We’ll look at loaners, OT (overtime) and every possibility to address this within the limits of the law,” LaSala said.
Commissioner Janet Long said the veterans issue had been “on my radar since I ran for commission. But I wasn’t on the commission when it went down this path due to what I assumed was the budget.”
She said she had received a number of emails on the issue and had talked to many people with concerns.
She admitted she didn’t yet have a lot of experience with county government, but said she was “seasoned” in veterans’ affairs having served in that capacity while in the state legislature.
But she had a more personal reason to be upset about the problem.
“I have two sons who served. They’re highly decorated,” she said. “One was injured and he’ll suffer forever. This is unconscionable. … I’m ashamed and I’m embarrassed.”
Commissioner Norm Roche said while the commission did not take action to cut any job in veterans’ services, “we did caught up in the dollars and cents” and didn’t take into account the ancillary value of the service.”
“It was that ancillary service we didn’t see, I didn’t see,” Roche said. “The earned value and earned benefits.”
He asked Tarter if there was a list of available certified VSOs.
“There are not any spares that I know of,” she said. “I can put a memo out to see if anyone has retired recently.”
Commissioner Karen Seel asked if FDVA could offer a course sooner than March if the county paid for it. Tarter said it was a matter of scheduling instructors and finding a room for training.
LaSala offered to provide the room and pay for hotels and other costs.
Tarter said even if training could be accelerated, which she said wasn’t likely, it would take at least two to three months after for the VA to certify those who pass the test.
Tarter said the county should have tried to fill its openings earlier and repeated that five was not enough VSOs to handle the needs of a county with 95,000 veterans or more.
“We’ve had five and there have been no complaints,” Seel said.
There was some debate on how long the positions had been open with the veterans’ side saying one had been open since January of 2012 and staff saying it had not been that long.
The commission asked LaSala to explore every possible solution and report back as soon as possible.