Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Daniel Zimmerman says he is not surprised there are a lot of great people who work for and with the WDVA, and he is honored and humbled to work with them. In an interview with The Wheeler Report, Sec. Zimmerman highlighted his goals moving forward, and the challenges facing veterans in Wisconsin.
Zimmerman was appointed as the Secretary of WDVA by Gov. Walker in February 2, 2017. His appointment recommendation passed the Senate Committee on Transportation and Veterans Affairs, 5-0 on Thursday, March 16. His confirmation is now awaiting a full Senate vote.
Zimmerman began by saying he plans to make the WDVA a transparent agency, working to make sure things are clear and open to the public. Zimmerman said they are trying to allow as much insight into the agency as possible.
Zimmerman emphasized his dedication to working with the County Veterans Service Officers and the Veterans Services Organizations, saying he was creating two positions in his office which will be a central point of contact for his office for Veteran Service Organizations. Zimmerman hopes to post the positions soon. Zimmerman said he is dedicated to making sure he builds a strong relationship with the CVSOs, and he believes these positions will help strengthen the relationship. Zimmerman said, “I have taken a very direct role in that because those people are essentially me when I’m not there.”
WDVA runs seven facilities at three different locations in the State of Wisconsin: four skilled nursing centers at King, one skilled nursing center at Chippewa Falls, one skilled nursing center at Union Grove, and one assisted living center at Union Grove. Zimmerman said WDVA is dedicated to two functions, giving good care to the veterans at the different facilities, and when veterans pass on, providing dignity and respect for the family. Zimmerman emphasized that the WDVA is doing that well now, and it is something he wants to make sure continues going forward. Zimmerman highlighted that Wisconsin has more than 800 volunteers who donate their time at Wisconsin Veterans Homes, saying people don’t volunteer where things are bad, they volunteer where they like and where they can help. Zimmerman said they are working to align the workforce of the facilities with the needs and numbers of the members being served. Zimmerman acknowledged that the facility at King was downgraded to a two-star facility after an incident, but said the facility will go back to a four-star in April. “One incident doesn’t tell the whole story.” Zimmerman was clear when he said WDVA is evaluating the needs of the facilities and the veterans of Wisconsin and everyone is looking at what the needs are and what the future needs might be. Zimmerman highlighted that everything is on the table for discussions, saying that could mean moving beds if necessary or changing the make-up of beds at different locations. Zimmerman said he wants to personally verify that Madison is the best place for another facility before making a recommendation.
Zimmerman referred to the WDVA Fast Facts 2016 when highlighting that Wisconsin provides more services to veterans than the surrounding states. Zimmerman said when he went to the national conference for VA Secretaries, Wisconsin proved to be engaged in most of the veterans’ services, setting Wisconsin ahead. According to the 2016 report, Wisconsin has 413,723 veterans, and offers: free higher education for veterans, tuition assistance for families, six skilled nursing facilities and 1 assisted living facility, a veterans museum, homeless veterans programs, personal financial grants assistance, non-profit grants, three state veterans cemeteries, free or reduced state park passes for veterans, free or reduced recreational licenses and fee-free professional licenses.
Zimmerman said he is dedicated to working on a strategic plan for post-9/11 veterans. Zimmerman said WDVA has a plan and is successfully serving the WWII, Korean, and Vietnam veterans in Wisconsin, but WDVA needs to plan and prepare for the needs of post-9/11 veterans. Zimmerman emphasized that buildings used for veterans now still need to be able to serve the needs of the next generation of veterans in 30, 40 or 50 years.
According to Zimmerman, the most challenging thing he has to work on is working to better identify Wisconsin veterans and get them services. Zimmerman said, “One of the largest challenges with veterans is that they don’t self-identify (when needing help), especially the ones that really need help. We know we have over 400,000 veterans here, but we don’t have contact with every one of them. A goal of mine is to improve that situation. I don’t think we will ever be able to get 100%, but if we can engage with the VSOs or the Tribal Service Officers, those are the eyes and ears out on the ground. If we can find all these veterans, we can bring them in and get them assistance if they need it or want it. “ Zimmerman said the CVSOs contacted them and said they need assistance identifying veterans and where they actually live. The WDVA has access to a federal data base, so when a soldier leaves service and comes home it shows in the federal database. Zimmerman is working on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the CVSOs to get them access to the database so they can identify when veterans return home to their areas so they can reach out to those veterans and make them aware of the services available to them.
Zimmerman finished the interview by sharing a story of how impressed he was with a WDVA employee who helped a female veteran in her time of need, saying “I’m humbled by the work we do. Most people don’t see that part.”