In an interview with The Wheeler Report, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary John Scocos talks about the highlights and the challenges facing veterans in Wisconsin.
Scocos said one of the biggest challenges facing WDVA now and in the future is mental health care. A new program offered by the WDVA, in partnership with the Department of Health Services, is the Veterans Outreach and Recovery Program (VORP). The program is funded by a $2.4 million federal grant. Scocos said, “We’re in 49 counties helping veterans who really have been left by the wayside. We’re able to locate veterans who have been disconnected or isolated from services and get them into housing and connected to the services they need. The funding also allows us to serve veterans who may not otherwise be eligible for traditional veterans programs due to their history. It’s been a good program and we’d like to see it become permanent down the road. We’re finding veterans with mental health issues. There are a lot of issues. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
Scocos said WDVA would like to add mental health services at the veteran’s homes. Scocos highlighted that three of the licensed skilled nursing facilities at King, along with the home at Chippewa Falls, are federally rated at 5 stars on a scale of 1 to 5, and the Union Grove facility is rated 4 stars. Scocos said, “There are 16,000 nursing homes across the country that are rated by the feds, and our Wisconsin Veterans Homes are among the top-rated in the nation. We are really proud of that. We’re proud of our employees and our members, and the hundreds of volunteers that support our homes every day. They have done a tremendous job. As the culture has changed so that people stay in there own homes longer, the average age of our members has gone up to 82-86 years, so we need to provide a lot more care at our homes than say 20 years ago. I think this is a very good success story.” Scocos went on to say the WDVA wants to continue to invest in the veteran’s homes and the department is working currently to add a mental health unit at each of the homes. “We’d like to see up to 40 beds on each of our facilities. Right now we’re going to be opening a pilot wing at King. We’re going to have 19 beds for short-term treatment.” Scocos said there is a continual struggle with mental health care and suicide prevention. “I think our VORP program is making a difference in housing and homelessness, but with that comes some of the issues of mental health care and substance abuse that we need to deal with.”
In regards to an American Legion resolution calling for a strategic plan for veteran’s services Scocos said, “We are pretty much in consensus. Wisconsin is the most progressive in the nation for taking care of our veterans, but it is time to have an honest and comprehensive conversation about where we need to be regarding the future delivery of services to veterans. I think all of us need to get together and put together a vision for the future. The demographics of veterans are changing and we need to be prepared to meet the future needs. The population of veterans is strongly concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of the state, but we need to ensure that those in Northern Wisconsin, like those in the more urban areas of the state, can access services and benefits that meet their needs, recognizing that the department’s funds are not unlimited. We need to be innovative in how we serve veterans in the future, making sure long-term we continue to stay solvent. All these groups – the legislature, our department, veteran’s groups, the counties – all need to come together with plans for the future. We have to find ways to meet the needs of our veterans as the demographics change, whether it be more medical issues, transportation, or outreach to certain areas. It can’t be about worrying about today; it needs to be about worrying about tomorrow. Ten years after a conflict is complete is usually when we see the height of the issues we face as a nation and a state.”
When asked about education opportunities for veterans in Wisconsin, Scocos said, “We’ve had over 13,000 veterans use the Wisconsin GI bill. We need to continue investing in our veterans, especially in the areas of technology, manufacturing, and entrepreneurship. In the last budget we changed an underutilized grant program so that we can help veterans grow their own businesses; and when veterans grow their business they hire other veterans.” When specifically asked about recent legislation that allows veterans to use military training for certifications Scocos said, “This is a great way to harness the skills that veterans acquired during military service to really enhance our civilian workforce. We also received a grant from the National Governor’s Association and we focused in on expediting the employment transition in three areas: nursing, law enforcement, and truck driving. We’ve made some great strides forward. A key is that we have to include employers. We’ve done over 35 employer benefit programs where we talk to their HR to get them in tune with the value that veterans offer their workforce. Veterans come to work on time, they are ready to work, and they have leadership skills. These are attributes employers are looking for.”
The Legislative Council will be hosting a study committee on volunteer firefighter and EMS shortages. When asked Scocos said he didn’t believe his agency had been contacted about the committee, or to be a part of the committee, but said, “There are veterans that could play a large part in that and helping with that. It’s like the shortage of CNAs and law enforcement, now the shortage of firefighters and EMS. Veterans can fill that gap, and a lot of them have the skills.”