As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe with ceremonies on the beaches of Normandy and commemorations across the United States, and look forward to the return of our remaining troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, we are shocked and saddened that the high regard we have for the brave men and women who fight on our behalf does not always translate into rapid access to the care and services they need to re-integrate into civilian life at home. Indeed, the scandal about falsification of wait times for care at VA facilities that forced the resignation of Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has commanded our attention and dominated the press, shedding light upon a subject that military families and those of us working on their behalf have known for many years.
In response to that scandal, The New York Times reported (June 5, 2014) that Sen. Bernard Sanders, independent of Vermont and chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, had come to an agreement on legislation to address these important concerns. If approved by Congress, the bill will enable veterans stuck on waiting lists or who live 40 miles or more from a VA medical center to access care from non-VA doctors/facilities – care that would be paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, approximately $500 million would be allocated to the VA to recruit and retain additional doctors and improve the delivery of care to veterans who were victims of sexual assault while in the military. According to The Times, the legislation would also create a panel to examine the capital needs of the VA as it ratchets up to serve the needs of veterans returning home from Asia and the Middle East. These measures are sorely needed and will surely make an impact in improving care for men and women returning home from combat and the families who love them.
The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey has been awarding grants to local agencies that work on behalf of veterans for several years. We have funded programs to provide enhanced case management services to those with behavioral health and addiction issues and who are homeless or living in transitional housing. We also funded special training for yoga instructors to better enable them to help veterans with various types of physical and emotional injuries, and last year provided funding to develop a series of videos for wounded veterans so that everyone – from vets with minor injuries to those who are dealing with amputations or PTSD – can, in group settings or in the privacy of their own homes, reduce their level of stress and improve their wellness and ability to function. To access the yoga for veterans series, click here.
On June 2nd, the Foundation hosted a roundtable meeting of government and non-profit professionals who provide services to veterans to discuss unmet needs in our community with the goal of issuing a Request for Proposals to fill those gaps later this year. Approximately 25 people from 18 agencies came together to share their ideas about what is working and what is not, and how philanthropy can help them improve physical and mental health care.
Several major themes emerged:
- It is clear that education is needed to build the capacity of grassroots social service and healthcare organizations to deal with returning vets and their families in a sensitive and appropriate manner and to help bridge the understanding gap that inevitably exists between those who have served and those who have not.
- Where possible, training veterans to assist more recent veterans is a strategy that works and is worth bringing to scale. In that regard, the Vet2Vet (1-866-838-7654) and Vets4Warriors (1-855-838-8255) helpline programs employ veterans to provide reciprocal peer support and resources to active and inactive service members.
- Veterans need jobs – and for those who are married with children, jobs take precedence over higher education. Training programs that equip vets to enter the job market are sorely needed. In addition, it was observed that job fairs are often the key to getting veterans to access other services. Job fairs that offer information about housing and other needed supports have a good track record of connecting vets to programs and services they otherwise might not seek.
- Substance abuse is a major problem for many veterans and often co-occurs with homelessness. Whether addicted to prescription drugs as a result of physical injuries or to street drugs as self-medication for the psychic pain of war, they are in need of supports to overcome their addiction, tackle their problems, and rejoin their families and communities as high-functioning, productive citizens, spouses, and parents.
- Mental health issues often do not emerge until two years or more post service. It is critical, however, that capacity be developed to provide those services for both veterans and their families and for those who are survivors of suicide. The stigma of seeking mental health supports is strong, and education needs to be done both within the military and in the general population to help people understand that coming forward for help is a sign of strength rather than one of weakness. Because veterans are often concerned that seeking help within the VA structure may compromise their future careers, and because waiting lists for care are so long, more community resources in the form of psychiatric social workers and Advanced Practice nurses, psychologists, and psychiatrists must be enlisted in this effort.
- Transportation is a key issue in some communities, where VA hospitals and other healthcare providers are distant from people’s homes or in inner cities, where low income people cannot access care that is not within walking distance of their houses. Options include mobile health vans, transportation networks, vets driving vets, and transportation vouchers for those who have no cars and cannot afford public transportation.
On Memorial Day 2014, The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey was among 30 foundations from across the United States that released a Philanthropy Joining Forces Impact Pledge to make sure that veterans and military families across the country receive the long-term support they deserve. The effort includes a joint commitment of more than $170 million over the next five years to help create affordable housing, provide health and wellness services, support education and job training, prevent domestic violence, expand economic opportunities, and more. We are proud to be working in close partnership with the Joining Forces Initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, and supported by groups from the non-profit, philanthropic, and corporate sectors.
Clearly there is much that philanthropy can do to help. We urge everyone to examine your granting and programmatic efforts through a lens of how they might include support for America’s returning soldiers. Perhaps that job initiative that you are supporting can make a special place for returning vets, or the community health workers that you are training can include them. Perhaps the arts programs that you support can provide experiential learning/therapy for veterans who need it, or serve as vehicles to educate the public about mental health stigma or other veterans’ concerns. There is room for everyone at the table. We hope that you will join us in this effort.
Marsha Atkind is the Executive Director of The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey is a member of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association serving private philanthropy through networking, education and facilitating opportunities to collaborate.