Senator Akaka Introduces Bill Requiring VA-Community Partnerships to Reach Rural, Minority, and Underserved Veterans

April 4, 2008, Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced S. 2796 earlier this week, to establish partnerships between the Department of Veterans Affairs and community organizations to connect with underserved veterans.  In selecting the community organizations that would partner with VA, priority would be given to those reaching out to rural veterans, minority veterans, and other underserved populations. 

“While VA helps countless veterans every day, too many remain out of reach, particularly rural and minority veterans.  My bill would help VA do more for these veterans who may feel the system is out of touch,” said Akaka. 

Chairman Akaka noted that mental health advocacy organizations, such as Mental Health America, have called attention to the greater need for the type of outreach services authorized by this bill, such as phone hotlines, help with applications for VA benefits, and assistance to transitioning service members and veterans in need of health care.  Akaka also noted that in his home state of Hawaii, community organizations such as Helping Hands Hawaii are well positioned to apply for the types of outreach partnerships outlined in S. 2796. 

Senator Akaka’s floor statement introducing the bill is copied below:
   I am pleased to introduce legislation today that will help the Department of Veterans Affairs reach out to underserved veterans, through collaboration with community organizations.
   The Department of Veterans Affairs is the second largest cabinet level Federal department, operating the Nation’s largest health care system. VA provides benefits and health care to millions of veterans and their families every year. Without question, VA helps countless veterans through its various programs every day, largely thanks to its employees, who make it their mission to serve those who served their country honorably.
   Unfortunately, while VA makes a positive impact on the veterans it serves, many others are left underserved. Far too often, these are veterans already in difficult circumstances, those who could benefit most from VA support. For example, veterans from rural areas must do without the kind of local support systems urban and suburban veterans often enjoy. Many veterans from racial and ethnic minority groups also remain underserved by VA, regardless of their physical proximity to veterans’ programs.
   More must be done for these veterans, who look at VA and see a system either out of reach or out of touch. The legislation I have introduced today pursues one potential solution: VA partnerships with community based organizations.
   If enacted, this bill would require VA to work with community based organizations to reach out to veterans who are underserved. Five community organizations, chosen by VA, would be selected for pilot partnerships. Special consideration would be given to rural communities and areas with a high proportion of minorities and other underserved veterans. The five pilots, each in partnership with a VA medical center, would focus on providing support to their underserved group by helping servicemembers transition from military service to veteran status, and helping them navigate the complicated veterans’ health care and benefits system. Also, the pilot programs would reach out to the families of veterans, in recognition of the central role that families play in helping veterans readjust and reintegrate.
   As Mental Health America, the country’s oldest and largest mental health nonprofit, has pointed out, America’s newest generation of veterans is returning from combat with invisible wounds that require care. These and other complicated injuries place new challenges on VA to provide the quality health care and benefits veterans have earned through their service. I hope that through the partnerships outlined in this legislation, VA will be better able to provide services to veterans who deserve support, yet are underserved.

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