Michigan families have a proud heritage of serving in the defense of our country. Our state is home to approximately 680,417 veterans who fought during a war or global conflict. Returning to civilian life can be incredibly difficult on those individuals and their families. To address these challenges, we have renewed our efforts in Michigan to put in place services that respond directly to those needs as efficiently and effectively as possible.
As Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, I have been honored to oversee a profound improvement in the effectiveness and efficiency of these services. We still have a long way to go, but we have strong indications that we are making significant progress.
One of the most common service issues is long delays in the receipt of benefits that veterans have earned. The state’s role in this process is twofold. First of all, our job is to ensure that all of our service personnel are aware of the benefits that they have earned via their service. Second, our job is to ensure that the federal Veterans Affairs Agency has all of the information that they need in order to determine if a veteran is indeed eligible for a given benefit. The federal VA is responsible for providing the benefits.
To better address our state responsibilities, the Michigan Legislature in concert with the Snyder Administration has changed the appropriations process over the past three budgets to emphasize performance against these objectives not simply spending money on programs. The agency responded to this challenge with the formation of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) within Michigan’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs in March. The purpose of this new agency is to serve as a centralized, coordinating unit in state government that will better connect veterans to services and benefits. Veterans can connect to the Agency through the web at www.mi.gov/dmva or by calling 517-284-5298.
This renewed focus on performance is already yielding results. When we started, states which submitted 20% of their claims with all of the information needed by the VA to process their benefit claims were considered the “gold standard”. Michigan only submitted 4% of their claims as “fully developed”. We are now submitting over 22% of our claims to the VA as “fully developed”. That means that there are less bureaucratic, paper-pushing ping-pong matches between the state and federal government. That means that our veterans will start to see their benefits more quickly. Our eventual goal is that 100% will be “fully developed”.
Finding gainful employment for returning soldiers is another high priority. The Michigan Legislature has introduced common sense legislation that allows military experience to count towards licensure and other employment requirements for several occupations. Furthermore, Michigan’s employment website features a section specifically designed to help veterans with their employment needs. Here, veterans can find employment specialists, military skills translators and job listings, as well as sign up to receive information specifically designed to aid in their job searches. The website can be accessed at www.mitalent.org/veteran/. I am also introducing legislation that will incentivize companies to hire veterans if they participate in the state’s procurement process.
Another focus has been working to improve the quality of care for residents of our state’s two veteran’s homes, the D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette and the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans in Grand Rapids. We are seeing great progress in this area as well. For example, the last audit of the home in Grand Rapids under Governor Granholm found 25 findings requiring corrective actions. This past April, a new audit uncovered only four findings. In the FY14 budget, additional funding has been appropriated specifically to address these findings. In keeping with the performance focus, our goal is to continue to improve quality of care for the homes’members.
Lastly, there is good news to report regarding the Freedom Center at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The Center, which provides a quiet lounge where military personnel and their families can relax and enjoy free amenities while passing through the airport, recently surpassed the 65,000 mark in the number of veterans and their families served. With the success of the Center there are now plans to expand these services to the Michigan Entrance Processing Station in Troy.
The Michigan Legislature is committed to ensuring the unique challenges of our brave service men and women are addressed. As we continue to identify areas where we can make improvements in the delivery of services to our veterans, we will continue our efforts in the Legislature to do so. Our veterans have served us. We are committed to serving them.