Mass. Sec. Of Veterans' Services Talks Challenges For Veterans Navigating Benefits System

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Coleman Nee, at WBUR in this 2014 file photo (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Coleman Nee, at WBUR in this 2014 file photo (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

If you're a veteran seeking federal benefits, where you live matters.

As part of our series, "Back at Base," we've been looking at the lives of America's veterans, this week focusing on their benefits and some of the discrepancies in those benefits.

For example, an NPR analysis of federal data shows that while the VA spends about $25,000 on medical service per veteran patient every year in Boston, on Cape Cod it's just $6,500.

Outgoing Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans' Services Coleman Nee joined WBUR's Morning Edition to explain the state's system.

Below are interview highlights from Nee's interview. To hear the full interview, click on the audio player above.

Interview Highlights:

On Town-By-Town Spending Discrepancies

Coleman Nee: It happens at a number of different levels, and I think when you piece it all together you begin to see a little bit of a clearer picture. On the federal level, to begin with, one of the challenges we face here in New England ... is that we have a rapidly declining veterans population. The fact is that despite some misperceptions that there are waves and waves of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan that the system can't handle, the fact is that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans represent one of the smaller populations of veterans that we have.

As we go on in years, the numbers of the veterans that we have are going to dramatically plummet. So there's fewer people that are accessing the system because they're even eligible. As far as access to care, if you look at Cape Cod ... you'll see that there's a very low per capita, per health care spending number relative to Boston. Well, there are very limited resources and access to acute and outpatient care for a lot of the veterans on the Cape. For the most part, if you're on the outer Cape, if you have the inability to drive, you don't have transportation access, [and] chances are even though you're eligible for VA care, you're going to opt for more community-based care for those outpatient and acute care services.

On The Challenges Of Navigating And Accessing The System

CN: It's really the way we've set up our veterans services. I mean we have the federal benefits that are extensive. VA benefits is a separate organization from VA healthcare, and they have two different websites. It can be a little confusing to try and navigate that system at the federal level. At the local city and town level here in Massachusetts ... that depends on the sort of competency as well as the commitment that each city and town makes to employing a Vet Service Officer that is aware of all the benefits, aware of all the services and can help those veterans navigate just about everything they've earned and everything that they need in terms of their benefits and resources.

On Veterans Service Officers

CN: As the cities and towns have kind of hired that position, some communities have taken a more serious approach to this and a more committed approach to this and brought on someone that has the know-how and the ability to be able to work with people, particularly people who are coming to them which are low income. Some communities have tended to look at this as more of a ceremonial position and as a result, people that come to those particular VSOs (Veterans Service Officers) might not get access to all of the care and the services that they're eligible for.

One of the things that we've really done, and we're about to promulgate regulations based on last year's Valor Act, is that all the the Veterans Service Officers in all the cities and towns now have to become certified and verify that they're well-trained to ensure that they know how to do their job, and that they know what the benefits and resources are and the best way to help connect people to them.

We'll have to sign-off on those communities making sure that they're comfortable with even just accessing computers. When I took over as secretary four years ago, there was a significant portion of our [Veterans] Service Officers that had never accessed computer benefits, weren't comfortable with computer technology. That's something that can't happen in the year 2015 so we'll be taking a large role on that as a department over the next year, and we hope that that will significantly decrease the disparities that we see in benefit caseload from town-to-town to ensure that, you know, we're not punishing veterans by virtue of their zip code.

This article was originally published on January 15, 2015.

This segment aired on January 15, 2015.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.


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Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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