(Sept. 3 -- By the Editorial Board)
As the Afghanistan war winds down, a different kind of battle will be more intensely waged on the home front: Can California ease the transition for veterans in a way that honors their service, gives them the best chance to succeed in civilian life and that taxpayers can afford?
A new report from the Little Hoover Commission is the latest to question whether the California Department of Veterans Affairs is up to the task, but it also presents a promising roadmap forward.
CalVet must deal with the state's rapidly aging population of 1.8 million veterans, already the nation's largest. It must also prepare for 35,000 more a year joining their ranks. While the state has historically focused attention and money on its veterans homes for the destitute and disabled, the commission says CalVet needs to change its mission and put a priority on services for all vets.
That means increasing aid to county veterans services offices, but also holding them more accountable. That also means working more seamlessly with federal agencies. Both improvements could combat an appalling fact: California is losing out each year on several hundred million dollars that should be going to veterans for pension and health benefits.
With the state budget not quite as tight, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature this year increased funding for the 56 county veterans services offices by $3 million. They also allocated another $3 million to create "strike teams" to go to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offices in Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego and aid in reducing the outrageous backlog of claims for disability benefits. Little Hoover says the state must closely monitor the additional funding to see if it is worth extending past 2013-14.
In its response, CalVet, which has 2,600 employees and a $405 million annual budget, says its new strategic focus on veterans services is already paying dividends, including better access to federal military personnel records and its selection as a test state for electronic benefit claims. CalVet Secretary Peter Gravett pledges to work with partners at all levels..
The report, issued late last week, got somewhat lost in the run-up to the Labor Day holiday weekend. But it deserves wide notice.