City Council Spotlights Massive Backlog in Veterans’ Benefits

A joint hearing of the council’s Veterans and Mental Health committees examined an issue probed recently by the Center for Investigative Reporting: a massive national backlog of government benefits for returning veterans.

New York veterans face some of the worst delays in the country, nearly two years in obtaining first-time approvals for government disability benefits available to former servicemen and women injured as a result of their military duties. That’s around twice the national rate.

Currently 12,054 veterans are awaiting compensation for disability claims at New York’s regional VA office; nearly half of them have been waiting for a year or more.

Testimony at the oversight hearing also stressed that many veterans — as many as one in three — can’t or won’t access even the basic health services offered by the Veterans Administration, whether because they were not honorably discharged or choose to stay away from the institution.

In response, mental health advocates working with veterans asked the City Council to set aside funding specifically to train mental health providers and others to appropriately serve ex-military.

Veterans Mental Health Coalition of New York City — a partnership of veteran and mental health advocacy and support groups — asked the council for $500,000 to provide the training. The coalition also wants to see an outreach campaign in places like barber shops and bars to get services to more of the city’s veterans.

New York City is home to about 220,000 veterans. More than 15,000 served in Iraq or Afghanistan, theaters that have left as many as half of returning veterans with some sort of psychological injury, according to advocates.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General evaluated the New York office, finding that it “lacked effective controls and accuracy in processing some disability claims.” And despite the serious backlog, the office actually shedded staff over the last two years.

“New York City needs to step up and do its part,” testified Coco Culhane, attorney of the Urban Justice Center’s veteran advocacy project.

“Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. What is New York doing to lower that number?”

Councilmember Mathieu Eugene, who chairs the Committee on Veterans and called the joint hearing, pleaded to the advocates over the two hours, “What can we do to help veterans?”

“They made the utmost sacrifice for us and they deserve the best that this city and country can provide,” he said.

His sentiments were echoed by Councilmember Kopppell, chair of the Committee on Mental Health, who said, “I think we should be doing more, there is no question. And I don’t even know if half a million dollars is enough.”

This is not the first time that advocates have asked the council to address the issue of veterans and mental health in the city. Last year, the same proposal died before making it into the budget.

“We keep coming at them but it’s been difficult to get any dollars.… Historically, it’s not been so good,” said Scott Thompson, a veteran and current director of the Veterans Mental Health Coalition of New York City.

He said individual meetings with both Koppell and Eugene have kept the hopes of Thompson and other mental health advocates alive.

“We have a lot more momentum this time and I’m hopeful we can get something.”

But not everyone at the hearing was as optimistic.

“It’s already late in the budget season and we didn’t hear any definite plans,” said Joe Bello, a veteran and advocate at NY MetroVets.

“You know how the budget dance goes. If they’re talking about cutting from libraries, they’re really not going to go for this.”