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State programs for veterans face legislative scrutiny and concerns

Michael Martz | Richmond Times-Dispatch

A state program to direct military veterans to mental health services and family support is relying on staff that may not be properly trained or certified to manage behavioral health care, according to a new legislative report that raises major questions about initiatives Gov. Terry McAuliffe is trying to expand.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission took specific aim Monday at the Virginia Veteran and Family Support program, created in 2008 as the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program to coordinate care for military veterans returning from battlefronts in the war on terrorism with brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, and serious depression.

The program’s staff — 35 people spread across the state in local and regional community services boards — “are providing some services they may not be qualified to perform,” the report states, citing evidence that employees are expected to provide case management services without the training required by law.

“There is some risk that individuals with mental health conditions who are served by unqualified or inadequately trained case managers will not be directed to the appropriate mental health services,” states the report, which recommends that the state determine if the program’s staff should meet licensing requirements and minimum qualifications for the work.

John L. Newby II, who became commissioner of the Department of Veterans Services more than a year ago, said his agency has been working with state mental health and community services board officials to devise a plan for reorganizing the program by the time the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 13.

Newby said the program is delivered by employees under the control of community services boards, which deliver mental health services under performance contracts with the state.

“At the end of the day, we cannot deliver the services in a unified way under the current structure,” he told legislators on the commission, the General Assembly’s watchdog agency.

But JLARC Director Hal Greer and key legislators on the panel cautioned against rushing to fix a program that could require much more time to restructure effectively through a proposed gubernatorial work group that would report its findings by Nov. 1.

“I’m not sure a month is enough time to figure this one out,” Greer said.

The wounded-warrior program is not the only target of the 102-page report, which praised improvements in state assistance in approving benefits for veterans, but also urged the department to do a better job of monitoring wait times at over-extended offices, particularly one in Richmond that is handling three times the median state workload.

Generally, the JLARC study urged the department to do a better job of communicating its services to veterans, establishing clear policies for the programs it runs, and measuring their results.

“It was a very sobering report,” said House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, in an interview Monday.

Jones also cautioned against committing additional state budget resources to veterans services until concerns about existing programs are addressed.

“Before we want to do anything additional we want to make sure the resources that are allocated are being spent as intended,” he said.

But McAuliffe already has announced $13 million for veterans services that he will include in the two-year budget he will propose Thursday. The new spending includes a program to help veterans transition from military to civilian life, help to connect families with support services and improve outreach.

In an announcement Friday, the governor outlined 11 specific initiatives for veterans, including $1.3 million to reorganize the Virginia Veteran and Family Support program for connecting veterans with help for mental health issues.

In a detailed, four-page letter to Greer last week, Newby points out that he and Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs John Harvey asked JLARC to conduct the study “for the purpose of taking a first-of-its-kind objective and comprehensive review” of the department.
The commissioner voiced support for many of the report’s 15 recommendations, especially the need for better communication and outreach to Virginia’s nearly 800,000 veterans, which he said is “spot on” and already being addressed.

“I wholeheartedly agree the department has not done a good job in telling veterans what benefits are available” to them, he told the commission.

But Newby warned against a choice JLARC recommended to potentially eliminate the Virginia Transition Assistance Program established last year. With an estimated 30,000 additional veterans expected in the next three years in Virginia, the state should “make sure we get out in front” to help former military personnel adapt their skills to critical civilian jobs, such as cyber-security, he said.

He also urged legislators not to wait for the proposed gubernatorial work group to recommend changes in the wounded-warrior program next fall because he fears community services boards won’t renew their contracts for the work in June if they don’t have greater certainty about the program’s future.

“We’re not going to wait,” he said.

Mental Health