Historically, California veterans have endured some of the nation’s longest wait times, when it comes to receiving their benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We owe our military heroes better than that, and the California Legislature should take every reasonable step to expedite the claims process.
On June 11th, the joint Budget Conference Committee adopted an important proposal, which does just that. The committee approved a three million dollar budget increase for county veteran services officers (CVSOs). The CVSOs are federally accredited professionals, who are trained to help veterans and their families navigate the complex federal VA benefit application processes. They assist in claims initiation and development and draw down significant federal dollars annually.
CVSO funding is derived from a combination of local and state resources – with an understanding, enacted into statute, that funding would be shared 50/50 between the state and local governments. However, during the past decade the state has funded less than its obligation. The counties have been funding 85 percent of the program. Last year, I was able to help secure a one-time special Budget augmentation of three million dollars for CVSOs, but unless we do it again this year, a key veterans’ resource is weakened and the state loses an opportunity to draw down more federal dollars – perhaps as much as $400 million more than it could.
Securing the extra funding this year has been a difficult chore, but has been one of my top personal priorities. I am coauthoring AB 2703, which would make the additional three million dollars a permanent increase in the annual State Budget. AB 2703 stalled in the Assembly last month, so we had to refocus our efforts on re-engineering a second consecutive temporary augmentation. That is why I formed a bipartisan group of senators to urge the Budget Conference Committee to adopt the temporary additional allocation again. If the Governor retains the augmentation in the Budget the Legislature sends him, it’s a huge victory for veterans.
Since 1995, our state’s CVSOs have helped draw down more than $3.65 billion in federal benefits earned through the blood, sweat and tears of California veterans and their dependents. Veterans pensions and disability compensation payments continue annually for the lifetime of the veteran or other qualified, veteran-related recipients. The VA health treatment benefits allow many veterans to be diverted from costly state- and locally funded programs, which helps protect state taxpayers from subsidizing the costs generated by federal military service.
The three million dollar augmentation in last year’s budget is directly benefiting California veterans and – indirectly – California’s economy. Last year the California Association of County Veteran Service Officers estimated that the benefits of the new funding would result in a $47 million increase in claims received. Comparing the results, thus far, between this year’s augmented efforts and last year’s underfunded efforts, the actual increase in federal benefits received is $89 million – which is 90 percent more than originally estimated.
San Diego County alone is home to more than 200,000 veterans. With this additional funding, our local CVSOs will be able to reach out to more veterans and their families and help them secure the benefits they have earned and help them reintegrate into civilian life. As Chair of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, and as your representative in the State Senate, please join me in fighting on behalf of those who fought for all of us.