National Veterans Policy Framework: Policy Priorities for a Post-COVID-19 World

Introduction


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Across the country, COVID-19 created a new normal for all American communities. The far-reaching effects of the global pandemic impact every facet of American life: the economy, social connectedness, and physical and mental health. In some ways, the veteran and military-connected community has been harder hit than others.

The IVMF believes it is critical that the United States unify behind a comprehensive set of policies that support the evolving needs of veterans and the military-connected community.

Policy

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    The National Veterans Policy Framework is rooted in the belief that good veteran and military family policy is good for all Americans. This idea manifests itself in three main ways:

    1. Transferability – The Policy Priorities of the National Veteran Policy Framework represent innovations in social service delivery with transferability to many other populations. Because veterans are considered a “deserving” population, they have historically been the seed from which many social service programs grow from. Federally-funded college education, home-ownership incentives and a healthcare safety net all got their start in the United States as policies aimed to serve veterans. As innovations from the National Veteran Policy Framework are considered by government, they will lay the groundwork for those innovations to spread to other populations.
    2. Fiscal Sustainability – An underpinning theme of this framework is increased coordination and collaboration among government, nonprofit and private sector organizations. Improved coordination and resource allocation will lead to long-term savings in spending on this population. These savings can be directed to other programs or needs taxpayers and voters see as needed.
    3. Security – 79% of Army recruits have a relative who served before them. The next generation of volunteers has its eyes on today’s military veterans, and their well-being will impact potential future volunteers decisions to serve. Ensuring that today’s veterans are well supported and empowered is our surest incentive to sustaining an all-volunteer force into the future.

Coordinate Veteran Services in Communities


Senate Bill 785 The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Improvement Act of 2019 and House Bill 8247 Veterans COMPACT Act are two major pieces of suicide prevention legislation likely to be signed into law this year. Read the IVMF’s letter of support for the two pieces of legislation.


Need: Even before COVID-19, veterans faced major challenges navigating the sea of resources available to them. Challenges associated with the military to civilian transition are often co-occurring, meaning there are more than one at once. This problem is sure to be compounded as needs increase in light of the ongoing economic and health crisis. The global pandemic brought with it issues and challenges well beyond physical wellness and health. All facets of human life have been affected. As such, the needs of veterans and their families have expanded — from mental health needs, to employment and financial assistance. Calls to veteran crisis lines have increased during the pandemic. Unemployment has skyrocketed, and financial and housing stability among military families are at an all-time low.

The federal government must play an active role in helping community social service providers come together to meet the uptick in need. The VA alone cannot address the complex combination of health, economic, and social needs of this population. However, working with communities on the ground in a coordinated way can vastly improve the efficacy of the infrastructure prepared to support veterans and their families.

  • IVMF AmericaServes care coordination data indicates that 44% of veterans had more than one need. Of those, 71% requested help in multiple service categories such as housing, health, employment, etc.
  • Each additional unmet service need is correlated highly with increases in the likeliness of suicidal ideation
  • Those committing suicide are more likely to not be using VHA care, filling this gap in care is critical to ending veteran suicide. Communities can play a role in filling this gap.
  • Veterans’ needs vary over time after transitioning, which makes service delivery more complicated.
  • Addressing the social determinants of health is beyond the reach of the traditional VA healthcare system, and military families and other-than-honorably discharged veterans often cannot access VA programs.
  • Veteran resources are often delivered in siloes across providers that do not collaborate or communicate with one another.
  • Policy Recommendation 1

    Congress should pilot a community coordination grant program that incentivizes community nonprofits, VA facilities, and VSOs to work together to help veterans and their families. Grant funding should be made available to state/local governments and organizations that:

    • Operate as “care coordination centers” that can create and receive “referrals” to assist veterans and their families access housing, employment, family support, and other essential services in their community.
    • Create “common agendas” in communities that convene social service providers to address the social determinants of health with a community collective impact approach.
    • Improve technology infrastructure to function as care coordination centers and collect and share critical referral and client data.

     

    Existing Legislation focused on this issue:

    • 785: Command John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019.
    • 1906: Improve Veterans Well-Being Act.
  • Policy Recommendation 2

    Expand the Expiration of Term of Service (ETS) Sponsorship program, which works to holistically address the needs of veterans as they transition out of the Army into their communities.

    • Studies indicate that 44% to 72% of Soldiers experience high levels of stressors during their transition from military to civilian life.
    • Women veterans and veterans of color face distinct challenges during transition associated with the intersections of their identities, there are few programs tailored enough to support their needs.
    • Set to operate in 6 cities across the country, the program pairs a willing Army transitioning service member with a VA-qualified and trained sponsor.
    • Through personal relationship, the sponsor works closely with the transitioning service member, the VA and other community resources to help the transitioning service member navigate all the services that best fit their needs.
    • Through one streamlined relationship, the transitioning service member can now navigate a wide array of nonprofit, government and private sector resources in their communities, tailored to best meet their unique challenges. This is especially important for women veterans and veterans of color who face specific challenges.
    • The ETS Sponsorship program combats isolation and lack of connectedness by centering the intervention in a personal relationship.
  • Policy Recommendation 3

    Expand the SAMHSA/VA Governor’s Challenge to End Veteran Suicide to All 50 States.

    The SAMHSA/VA Governor’s Challenge to End Veteran Suicide represents an innovative model of collaboration and coordination that blends the benefits of an organic, locally driven approach with the resources and expertise of Federal support. Currently, 28 states are engaged in the Challenge where a wide variety of policymakers, clinicians, social service experts, nonprofits and other leaders convene to develop community-driven approaches to ending veteran suicide.

Equity for Veterans on the Margins


Women veterans and veterans of color already face distinct challenges associated with the intersection of their gender, racial, ethnic and military identities. When COVID-19 hit, women veterans and veterans of color experienced heightened unemployment rates, and experienced social, employment, and health needs at higher rates. Research shows that both groups face distinct economic and wellness needs. 

Women Veterans:

  • 66% of female veterans characterized their financial transition as difficult or very difficult,  compared with 51% of male veterans.
  • Female veterans have higher unemployment rates than male veterans (3.7% vs. 4.7%) and, on average, require an additional three months to secure employment. This trend has continued during COVID-related spikes in unemployment, 20% of post-9/11 women veterans are unemployed compared 11% of men.
  • 40% of women veterans took longer than a year to find employment compared to 19% of male veterans.
  • Women veterans perceive the Veterans Health Administration as lacking services specific to women’s health and perceive an inability to request female-specific services and financial assistance from the Veterans Benefits Administration.
  • 21% of female service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001-2014 screened positive for military sexual trauma (MST) – 20 times higher than their male counterparts.
  • Female veterans are more likely than males to have a disability, and two times more likely to be homeless.

Veterans of color:

  • The Post-9/11 Veteran unemployment rate before the COVID-19 unemployment spike was 3.5% while the Post-9/11 unemployment rate among Black veterans was 6.8%.
  • Black veterans earn on average almost $20,000 a year less than their white veteran counterpart.
  • People of color (inclusive of Black veterans) make up only 18% of the veteran population but 42.3% of the veteran homeless population.
  • The IVMF COVID-19 Needs Survey found that veterans of color experienced needs in all categories at higher rates than their white counterparts.

America must act to protect the financial and economic well-being of its women veterans and veterans of color, some of the most economically vulnerable. The COVID-19 outbreak has only exacerbated existing employment and transition challenges already faced by these groups.

  • Policy Recommendation 1

    Provide grants to community-based organizations that have programs and services that cater supporting women veterans and veterans of color with tailored services that meet their needs. These organizations may provide services such as employment services, entrepreneurship training, childcare, short-term financial assistance, and social inclusion and support.

    • Supporting the community-based organizations serving these subpopulations will help expand support for and opportunity of women veterans and veterans of color.
    • These organizations could be veteran service organizations that these organizations could be veteran-focused organizations that don’t yet offer tailored programming to women or veterans or color, or community-based organizations not yet offering veteran specific programming.
    • This grant program would both support existing organizations and drive innovation in the social sector to rise and meet an existing need.
  • Policy Recommendation 2

    Expand the Expiration of Term of Service (ETS) Sponsorship program, which works to holistically address the needs of veterans as they transition out of the Army into their communities.

    • Studies indicate that 44% to 72% of Soldiers experience high levels of stressors during their transition from military to civilian life.
    • Women veterans and veterans of color face distinct challenges during transition associated with the intersections of their identities, there are few programs tailored enough to support their needs.
    • Set to operate in 6 cities across the country, the program pairs a willing Army transitioning service member with a VA-qualified and trained sponsor.
    • Through personal relationship, the sponsor works closely with the transitioning service member, the VA and other community resources to help the transitioning service member navigate all the services that best fit their needs.
    • Through one streamlined relationship, the transitioning service member can now navigate a wide array of nonprofit, government and private sector resources in their communities, tailored to best meet their unique challenges. This is especially important for women veterans and veterans of color who face specific challenges.
    • The ETS Sponsorship program combats isolation and lack of connectedness by centering the intervention in a personal relationship.

    While not exclusively serving women veterans or veterans of color, the ETS sponsorship program operationalizes two ideas critical for better veterans whose identities are often marginalized in America:

    1. Because it is a personal relationship with a trained sponsor, the transitioning service member or veteran can develop a tailored plan to connect to a number of nonprofits and government programs based on whatever distinct needs they are facing.
    2. The personal relationship at the heart of the ETS sponsorship program can help combat feelings of identity erasure, invisibility and lack of social connection particularly pervasive among women veterans.

Expand Economic Opportunity for Veterans and Spouses


Need: The economic implications of the COVID-19 crisis have been far-reaching and devastating. While much attention is being paid to ensuring that people can gain access to unemployment benefits now, we must also turn our attention to planning for the long-term economic implications of this crisis. The unemployment veterans and their families are experiencing now can undermine future financial well-being and stability. Critically, transitioning service members, veterans and their families must be equipped with the skills that will give them access to gainful employment under the conditions of this new normal. More simply, this means that policy must align workforce development programs with careers and skillsets aligned with the workforce of the future.

These issues are longstanding and multifaceted in the veteran community. There are multiple opportunities to improve the way in which policy supports veteran and military family economic opportunity:

  • Transitioning service members cite finding a job (55%) and applying military skills to civilian work (41%) among their top transition stressors.
  • 62% of African American veterans cite finding a job as their number one challenge.
  • Nearly one-third of veteran job seekers are underemployed—a rate 15% higher than non-veterans.
  • Military spouses often cannot participate in DoD Skillbridge programs unless there is available space.
  • The DoD is required to permit access to veteran and military serving organizations where possible; however, installations vary in available space, resources, and commanders hold final authority in granting access. As a result, some military installations have more private support than others.

Veteran Unemployment by Country

  • Policy Recommendation

    Nonprofits and the private sector stand ready to support the work already being done by the government. In addition to TAP trainings, DOL job centers and other government-run employment programs, the nonprofit sector represents a dynamic partner to provide job training, placement and support. A grant program and partnership model between the DoD, DOL and the VA could support strong economic opportunity for veterans and their families even in the face of such an economic crisis.

    • Develop a competitive grants program administered through the Department of Labor that provides funding to nonprofit organizations that provide in-demand skills training and career placement to veterans, transitioning-service members and spouses.
    • Priority in grants should be given to organizations that will provide trainings for careers that align with the workforce of the future.
    • Priority in grants will be given to innovative programs that can deliver trainings virtually, or are geographically flexible.

     

    Existing Legislation focused on this issue:  Senate Bill 666 HUBS for Veterans Act of 2019

Support the Whole Health of Veterans


Need: The mental health implications of this crisis are well-documented and cannot be overstated. Being isolated, away from a job, routines interrupted, less access to exercise and other wellness lifestyles can all contribute to worsening conditions of mental wellness. In response to this complicated set of challenges, healthcare systems for both the general population and veterans will have to look at alternative ways to support wellness. In fact, The VA has already begun the hard work of shifting their healthcare delivery model to be shaped around the veteran and their needs through the office of Whole Health. This office focuses on what matters to the veteran, connecting them with a wide array of integrative services from meditation and yoga to recreational therapy and group exercise.

As society begins to heal in the wake of COVID, understanding the mental, physical and social needs of veterans will be critical to ensuring a healthy and productive return to normal for many veterans. Whole Health represents an opportunity for policy to mitigate the worst of poor mental health effects (suicide) while also promoting overall wellness and a sense of thriving among America’s veterans.

  • Policy Recommendation

    Policy:Congress should explore and consider current legislation focused on this issue.

    • S. 785: Command John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019.
    • HR 2359: Whole Health Veteran Act.

    Both bills call for a study of complementary services available to better understand standards of care, as well as starting a program that expands access to these types of programs.

Create a National Veterans Strategy


Need: One thing is clear across all the framework’s proposed mechanisms: solutions must be coordinated, comprehensive, and go far beyond the legislative mandate of the VA. The federal government has a wide variety of programs across a number of agencies that support veterans and their families. Without proper coordination and governance, these programs may become duplicative and less effective, wasting critical taxpayer dollars. Crises necessitate coordinated action. This is true during response and recovery. As veterans and their families begin to face the arduous road of recovery, government cannot afford to be siloed. Federal agencies must be aligned, working towards a common set of goals to improve service delivery for this population.

  • With continuous war on the horizon, there is a fiscal imperative to create a more efficient and properly resourced government.
  • Current federal approaches do not reflect a comprehensive understanding of veterans’ issues, as they are multifaceted and cut across numerous agency boundaries and areas of responsibility.
  • Existing federal veterans’ programs and services do not allocate responsibility with agency strengths.
  • With few exceptions, current federal strategic planning and service delivery coordination processes do not provide for robust engagement and communication with state and community-level partners.
  • The federal government’s existing information technology governance and data management systems do not adequately allow agencies to share data, which makes program evaluation and collaboration difficult.
  • Policy Recommendation

    The federal government should create a non-issue specific federal government interagency veteran’s council that allows for coordinated planning and governance spanning organizational boundaries. This effort should:

    • Under the direction of the Domestic Policy Council, and led by the White House Chief of Staff, convene an interagency executive council responsible for aligning all federal veteran support initiatives.
    • Create regular forums to engage community-based stakeholders, leverage their insight and expertise, and align plans and service delivery strategies to complement and empower community-based efforts.
    • Form a permanent advisory board of subject matter experts in veterans’ issues to review the National Veterans’ Strategy’s initiatives and services independently.
    • Develop and release a National Veterans’ Strategy to guide federal veterans’ policy for a 4-8-year period imitating the National Security Strategy (NSS).
    • Implement information technology and data management tools to support collaboration and data sharing.
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