Bipartisan legislative package to improve veterans’ service in Maine
A package of bills based on the work of a special commission charged with finding ways to improve the delivery of services to Maine veterans is moving through the Legislature, with the first public hearings scheduled for Monday, Feb. 29, 2016.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee has drafted five bills that address homelessness, outreach and state resources, transportation and the needs of veterans pursuing higher education. The legislation is based on the recommendations of the Commission to Strengthen and Align the Services Provided to Maine Veterans, a bipartisan group made up of lawmakers, state officials, representatives of veterans’ organizations and veterans of different ages and genders
- LD 1611/Homelessness: Creates an interagency council with dedicated staff to coordinate and maximize existing services. The commission found that housing vouchers from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development are going unused and raised concerns that the annual count of homeless veterans may not be providing accurate numbers for Maine, particularly in rural areas. Public hearing: Monday at 10 a.m. before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, State House Room 437.
- LD 1612/Bureau of Veterans Services: Adds marketing and outreach to the core functions of the state Bureau of Veterans’ Services in order to identify veterans in Maine and increase awareness of available services and benefits; hires two additional veteran service officer to bring their total number to nine; implements an electronic records management system. The commission found that of the estimated 140,000 veterans in Maine, less than half are enrolled with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, meaning they are not receiving the federal health benefits and other services for which they may be eligible. The commission also found that Maine has one veterans service officer for every 20,000 veterans in the state, a ratio that is far behind that of other states. Public hearing: Monday at 10 a.m. before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, State House Room 437.
- LD 1599/Health Care Transportation: Directs the state Department of Health and Human Services to seek a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to allow transportation services to bring veterans to health care appointments at the Department of Veterans Affairs at Togus and affiliated community-based outpatient clinics. The commission found that while transportation services for veterans’ health care exist, they are not able to take veterans to the VA or its affiliates. Public hearing: Tuesday at 1 p.m. before the Health and Human Services Committee, Cross Building Room 209
- LD 1602/Regional Transportation: Establishes a pilot project to provide transportation for veterans to improve access to essential programs and services. The commission found that veterans are at greater risk of unemployment, homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide than the general population, making transportation to jobs, services, health care and community activities crucial. Current transportation programs are not meeting needs, especially given the aging veteran population and the rural nature of Maine. Public hearing: Tuesday at 1 p.m. before the Transportation Committee, State House Room 126.
- Higher Education: Campuses of the University of Maine and Maine Community College systems that have a significant number of veterans enrolled will establish veterans resource centers like the one at the University of Southern Maine to help students transitioning from military to student life. (This bill has not yet been referenced to a committee and the public hearing has not yet been scheduled.)
“It’s great to see how so many people came together to make sure we’re serving Maine veterans to the best of our ability as a state,” said Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, the House chair of the commission, a member of the committee and a Marine Corps veteran who sponsored of the legislation that created the commission. “We’ve been sending men and women to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq for more than 14 years now, and it’s well past time to invest in the Bureau so it can keep pace with the changing needs of Maine veterans.”
“It was sobering to learn about the problems in veterans services. But the commission shined a light on them and the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee did stellar work to come up with solutions,” said Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, the Senate chair of the commission and the Transportation Committee. “We must ensure that the people who have given so much have exemplary resources available to them. Our state has a responsibility to fulfill this need.”
The bipartisan commission unanimously approved the report. The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee unanimously voted to send these five bills to the full Legislature.
“If there is one issue that transcends party lines in Augusta it’s ensuring that our veterans receive the proper care they all deserve,” said Rep. Jonathan Kinney, R-Limington, a member of the commission and the House Republican lead on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. “As a member of the commission and committee, I am proud of the work we have done but now we need the Legislature to take the next step and fix the problems identified in the report.”
“We have the chance to perform a great service for Maine’s veterans. The bipartisan work of the commission and this committee have provided a great start by producing a thorough and thoughtful blueprint and a concrete legislative plan of action,” said Rep. Louie Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the House chair of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. “I’m hopeful that the full Legislature will agree that it’s time for us to act and make a real difference in the lives of veterans.”
“The commission’s work is to be commended. We cannot ignore the issues they raised,” said Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, the Senate chair of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. “I’m proud of the diligence of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. If we these measures become law, they will be very helpful to veterans throughout Maine.”