AUGUSTA — A new report released Friday is recommending Maine’s Bureau of Veterans Services be expanded and revamped so it can better serve the state’s estimated 140,000 military veterans.

The report shows it’s been more than 15 years since the bureau has received any updated policies or targeted funding, and that younger veterans — those from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — are often frustrated as they try to piece together the state and federal benefits available to them as they return to civilian life.

The result of a special legislative commission that met five times during the summer and fall of 2015, the report focuses mostly on enhancements for the bureaus rather than a critique of the bureau’s current work.

One key recommendation of the report is to make permanent funding available for a marketing and outreach coordinator for the bureau, as well as changes in the law that will define outreach duties for the bureau.

“We have to increase coordination and communication,” said Rep. Jared Golden, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “One of the biggest findings was that young veterans were feeling ignored.”

Golden, a Lewiston Democrat, sponsored the legislation that led to the creation of the commission in 2015. Only authorized to work for a temporary period, the commission included a broad selection of lawmakers, other state officials, including the state’s newest Commissioner of the Bureau of Veterans Services Adria Horn, and veterans, forming a generational cross-section of Maine veterans both young and old, male and female.

Golden co-chaired the commission with Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells.

“One of the very big issues of the whole proceedings was the lack of information that our veterans have about what is available to them as a veteran,” Collins said.

Collins, who is not a veteran, said that information gap “rang out to me on a number of occasions, so that is one of the things we’ve got to change.”

The report also suggests changes to the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, that would allow some transportation costs for veterans seeking medical services at Veterans Administration facilities to be covered by the program.

Transportation issues became an overarching theme, Golden said, and the report makes a recommendation that the state develop a long-term transportation policy using existing regional transportation programs, such as bus networks but with a focus on veterans as a targeted constituency.

“No matter what issue we were addressing, whether it was talking about jobs, homelessness, talking about education — the people who came in to talk to us always brought up transportation as a barrier to veterans accessing health care, getting to work. For homeless veterans, they often have no access to transportation,” Golden said.

He said the report’s recommendations were exciting in that area because if they are successfully implemented they would have a wide-ranging, positive impact on many veterans’ lives.

It also recommends that a University of Southern Maine program that helps student veterans be replicated throughout the University of Maine System and be developed for the state’s community college system.

The report, according to Golden, has broad bipartisan support and could lead to several bills in the weeks ahead.

The final price tag for that legislation has yet to be determined, but it could be an additional $2 million to $5 million each year for the bureau.

Golden said the commission had dozens of policy areas it could have homed in on, but members chose to focus on the ones they felt to be the most important and improvements that were likely to be accomplished quickly.

“The breadth of issues is so great, we recognized we weren’t going to be able to get to them all, so we tried to identify areas where we thought the state could really step in and take some action,” Golden said. 

He said the report is not an indication that the bureau’s staff is doing inadequate work but a recognition that the agency had reached its capacity.

“The report is in no way a reflection or a critique of the incredible work the bureau currently does, but an acknowledgment the bureau is lacking the resources it needs to fully accomplish its mission,” Golden said.

One example he gave was how the bureau was largely still dependent on paper records. He also said that the ratio of veterans to service officers — the seven members of the bureau’s staff who help connect veterans with the services or benefits they need and are entitled to — was worse in Maine than in states with similar agencies.

In Massachusetts, for example, there is one service officer for every 12,000 veterans; in Maine, the ratio is one staff person for every 20,600 veterans. 

“They are dramatically underfunded,” Collins said. “And we’ve got to correct that, and I’m sure that will be one of the recommendations put into a bill.”

Golden said the report recommends that the state do a better job when it comes to caring for homeless veterans by first trying to get a more accurate count of homeless veterans in Maine and then by ensuring a specific state agency is made responsible for tackling the issue and coordinating between multiple state departments that help the homeless, in general.

The report recommends that the state do more than a once-a-year, point-in-time survey of homeless veterans, which is now done in January. It recommends multiple surveys, including during the summer months, to establish a more accurate count of homeless veterans.

“Success at resolving chronic homelessness among veterans should be determined by actually placing veterans in stable housing, not just creating the capacity to do so,” according to the report.

Golden said lawmakers on a variety of committees could hold jurisdiction over the bills that develop from the report, depending on the area of state law they affect. He noted that he had at least three bills in mind that would likely be offered by commission members who also serve on the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

He said commission members, including Collins and others who serve on the committee, were largely in agreement on most of the proposals. He said that along with other lawmakers, including those on the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, they would begin the search for funding options.

Collins said he was pleased and proud of the bipartisan work the commission achieved, as well as the strong bipartisan support he was seeing for the recommendations.

“I can’t say enough about that,” Collins said. “It was across party lines; it was in both chambers working for a common goal and that is improved services for our veterans.”

Golden said one frustration for the commission was that members felt like they did not have the time they needed to fully address issues around mental health concerns for Maine veterans.  

“There are certainly sometimes gaps and issues that arise and should be looked at,” Golden said. The report does recommend some follow-up in that area. While veterans’ concerns are largely a responsibility of the federal Veterans Administration, Golden said commission members felt the state should have a role in ensuring its veterans can access the mental health services they may need.

“We are hoping to have a work group or a task force that tries to get real in-depth on some of those issues, and at the very least bring some of those issues to light and share them with our federal (congressional) delegation,” Golden said.

Golden and Collins will appear before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee at 10 a.m. Monday, Feb. 1, to present the commission’s report and its findings.

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Final Report of the Maine Commission to Strengthen and Align the Services Provided to Maine's Veteran…

“Access to same-day emergency services such as housing, transportation and funding for basic necessities is lacking. Veterans often have to wait days, weeks and even months for such assistance.”   – Report finding.


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