By SHEILA SCHIMPF
Capital News Service
LANSING – Almost $200,000 in state money is on its way to veterans’ services offices in 19 counties, the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency said.
Another $50,000 could be awarded before the year ends, part of a $250,000 allocation from theLegislature, according to the veterans affairs agency.
Most of the county offices will use the grants for new technology and to hire more counselors. Wexford County will establish a new office.
Rob Price, director of targeted outreach at the Michigan Veterans Affairs Office, said by the end of the year, only seven of Michigan’s 83 counties will be without a county veterans office. Counselors at the offices assist veterans in filing for disability and pension benefits. The grants play a big part in increasing the number of counselors.
“We can influence counties to hire counselors,” Price said. The grants are part of a County Incentive Program that started in the Legislature’s 2013 budget. Since then, the state has granted almost $640,000 to county veterans offices.
“We increased [the number of counselors] by 27 in three years,” Price said.
Michigan’s 660,000 veterans have only 205 accredited counselors, Price said, and many more are needed. Training is offered free twice a year.. The next training is in the third week of March in Port Huron.
The two biggest positives that come out of the county incentives grants are more counselors and better technology, Price said. The Veterans Administration nationally works online. The grants allow more counties to operate the VetraSec software the VA uses. With the online process, claims that used to take 40 to 50 days to process are now completed in three to five days, Price said.
Michigan’s 660,000 veterans are the 11th largest veteran population in the country, Price said. Surviving spouses and dependents may be entitled to benefits, Price said, but no one knows how many are in Michigan. “There could be 150,000 or more,” he said.
Michael Smith, president of the Michigan Association of County Veterans Counselors, who is based in Ann Arbor, said the grants have been a boon for veterans.
“The big picture is that these grants have allowed county governments to establish county departments of veteran affairs in counties where there have been none—ever,” Smith said.
“They have allowed existing offices to expand hours and staff and have also allowed other existing offices to expand technology.”
Benefits are distributed through county offices because of a law that dates back to 1899, Smith said, when for the first time the state said it would take care of veterans and their survivors. The law required counties to levy millage to care for veterans.
The incentive grants that were sent out to 19 counties the third week in February are for start-up, Smith said.
For example, Marquette County will get $10,000 to hire a part time counselor. Marquette, like all the counties who got grants, was able to apply for the grant only after it hired a counselor and paid out the money. “These grants reimburse the counties for portions of their costs,” Smith said. Marquette will continue to pay the counselor out of its own funds.
“Since the grants came around, we’ve added six new county offices of veterans affairs: Crawford, Montcalm, Osceola, Oscoda, Wexford, Marquette. We’ve expanded services, added staff, expanded their hours,” Smith said.
Smith said the counties will pick up the costs not covered by the state money next year.
“This has been the best thing that happened to county governments at least in the area of providing services for veterans since peanut butter,” Smith said.
Veterans, surviving spouses and dependents can get help or find out what resources are available by calling 800-642-4838 or visiting MichiganVeterans.com.
By SHEILA SCHIMPF