Nationally, Veterans comprise about 1% of the population. In Saguache County, Veterans compose nearly 10% of the population. Despite the increased presence of Veterans in the county, we are still one of the only counties in the US without a full time Veterans Services Officer.
A VSO is an essential member of every community, as it is the VSO who has a legal ability to help veterans with disability claims, help veterans access transportation services, and help veterans enroll in health care. Veterans in the county are assigned to Veterans Administration Medical Centers (VMAC) all over the state, from Denver to Grand Junction. Coordinating services for at risk and in need Veterans, at a distance, is very difficult to do part time, and the part time nature of our current VSO creates unnecessary delays in accessing real time needs.
Our vets have access to transportation services to Colorado Springs through Chaffee County, and to a small outpatient clinic in Alamosa. Most eligible veterans access health care through the VA Choice program, a complex health services model that is plagued by late reimbursements to providers, unnecessary red tape, and reimbursement rates lower than Medicaid. In a nutshell, VA Choice, the program put in place to help Veterans facing long driving distances and wait times, has resulted in long travel distances and wait times, as few specialty providers have opted to participate.
The San Luis Valley Veterans Coalition is a loosely organized group of non-profits that champion and advocate different aspects of the veterans experience. What all the organizations have in common is a desire to help vets. What none of the organizations provide is a trained VSO. There are veterans housing initiatives, veterans health initiatives, veterans farming initiatives, and even a Women’s Coalition – female veterans commit suicide 35X more than their civilian counterparts and are a chronically unserved part of the veterans community. Most mental health groups are all male, and VA medical care for women is slowly catching up to the increasing number of female service members – future vets.
All these initiatives leverage the benefits vets recieve for their service, and federal benefits are at the core of the veteran experience, especially the disabled veterans experience. These benefits are what allow vets to pay for housing and access medical care, and barriers accessing these benefits trickle down as barriers to accessing community based services.
Ive reached out to the Transportation coordinators in Grand Junction and Chaffee County, as well as our own VSO Jim Sheehan, and Veterans advocat3w in Alamosa and across the valley. I would like to explore Region Air Services as an additional route to Denver for vets with exams and appointments there.
Overall, our top priority for veterans MUST be the creation of a full time Veterans Services Officer position who can do individual case management and respond quickly to urgent needs of the community.