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CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala presented a Veterans Services action plan Feb. 5.

The plan was presented at the end of an advertised work session on the budget forecast for the years 2014-2023.

The county came under fire at the Jan. 29 commission meeting when many veterans and veterans’ advocates crowded the room to speak on inadequate staffing of the county’s Veterans Services Unit and a lack of response to people needing assistance with claims.

Three of the five Veterans Services Officers positions are currently unfilled. Two new hires are expected to begin work within three weeks, but will need to be trained, tested and certified, which could take up to six months. The senior VSO position also is vacant. LaSala said staff expects to fill that position within 60 days.

The consensus from the Jan. 29 discussion was that two VSOs could not handle the need. LaSala was asked to take immediate steps to fix the situation.

He announced Feb. 5 that Hillsborough Count was offering immediate assistance by providing a VSO three days a week. Another VSO provided by Florida Department of Veterans Affairs will begin work three days a week on Feb. 7. A retired former Health and Human Services VSO has agreed to volunteer 20 hours a week beginning Feb. 11 to help with the backlog of phone calls and assist walks-ins and veterans who schedule appointments. The VSO assigned to the St. Petersburg office will work out of the Clearwater office two days a week.

LaSala estimated that the backlog would be cleared within three weeks.

Hillsborough County agreed to provide a loaner VSO for two weeks to one month, after which time staff will assess future needs for that assistance. The FDVA will provide a VSO for two months with the possibility for more time if needed.

The county’s Veterans Services will have five VSOs in addition to office support specialists and case managers, according to the action plan. The Veterans Services Unit is currently, and will continue to be, supervised by a senior VSO, as well as a program manager, LaSala said.

The newly hired VSOs are scheduled to attend a four-day training course in March. Hillsborough County will provide training for the VSOs prior to the March training.

In addition, Health and Human Services will monitor the phone backlog, appointment scheduling and walk-in traffic daily to ensure the action plan is working for the next three months. Afterwards, monthly monitoring and reports will be done to evaluate the efficiency of the program.

LaSala pointed to misinformation that came from the Jan. 29 meeting and stressed the point that the county was only one of 11 places where veterans could get assistance with their claims.

“Pinellas County is not accredited but does have power of attorney to help,” he said.

Claims processed by the county are passed on to one of the accredited organizations, he said.

He said the figure of $57 million in claims for the county in 2012, as presented by the FDVA, was incorrect. He said it was only $44 million and that the county’s office contributed about $16 million of that total.

He also disputes the assertion that revenue generated by claims would go down due to the county’s problem with staffing.

“I don’t expect to see a drop in revenue, I believe it will be an increase,” he said.

He said so far for the first quarter of 2013, the numbers are up and he expects the numbers to exceed previous years.

It costs the county an estimated $500,000 to provide veterans services. Commissioner Norm Roche suggested using that money to assist the 11 organization instead of running a separate program.

“We (the county) assist with the most difficult cases, the ones that are hard to get into the system,” said Commissioner Karen Seel.

She said county VSOs had been able to provide that help because “we had very skilled staff.”

Commissioners also talked about the communication issue between staff and the veterans.

“There was clearly a communication issue,” Commission Chair Ken Welch said. “We need to eliminate the backlog and make sure the same problems don’t happen again.”

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