Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once called America’s states “laboratories of democracy;” state legislatures can tinker with public policy and, in theory, see what works and doesn’t work. One area where these laboratories are in full swing is in the area of state-level veteran’s benefits.
Many states provide basic benefits, in addition to benefits provided at the federal level, for veterans who serve the nation honorably and meet eligibility criteria. Things like: free admission to parks, hunting and fishing licenses at low or no cost, reduced rates for education at state funded colleges and universities, tax reductions and rebates, and veteran’s preferences for hiring in state jobs, are relatively common. Some states experiment with veteran’s policy by pushing well beyond these common state programs. Texas for example, through the very generous Hazelwood Act, provides up to 150 hours of exemption from tuition for veterans at state colleges and universities, or, if the veteran doesn’t use the benefit, for their spouse or child. Quite a few states (including Massachusetts) fund veteran’s nursing homes and are working to tackle veteran’s homelessness.
All of these programs are impressive and necessary and, they couldn’t be more important. Current veteran suicide rates are staggeringly high. More than seven thousand veterans took their lives in 2014. Of those veterans 70% were not enrolled in the federal VA system. That crisis, coupled with high veteran homelessness rates, poses significant risks to veterans living on the border of, or in, poverty. States address these challenges among their veteran populations in a variety of ways, but it is the way that Massachusetts offers commonwealth veterans in need assistance that show its progressive roots. Roots that stretch back to the Civil War.
During the Civil War, Massachusetts passed Mass. General Law Chapter 115 (Chapter 115). The statute has grown since then, but it has always provided a veteran’s agent in every Commonwealth municipality and assistance with veteran burials and grave services. Today, Chapter 115 benefits still provide a veteran’s agent (now referred to as a veterans service officer or VSO) and cemetery services, but the statute also provides a comprehensive benefit that truly seeks to serve those who have served.
This benefit is probably one of the most effective income-assistance benefits in the nation. It is funded through a city/state partnership where the city’s employee, the Veteran Service Officer (certified and trained by the state Department of Veteran’s Services), uses the regulations promulgated by the state Department of Veteran’s Services (108 Code of Massachusetts Regulation) to makes a determination about the eligibility of the veteran. Initially, if a veteran is eligible for Chapter 115, the veteran’s benefit is paid from the city’s budget. This process makes the Veteran Service Officer accountable to their respective Mayors, City Mangers, and City Councils.
In addition to being accountable to the municipal leadership, when a VSO approves Chapter 115 benefits auditors at the state Department of Veteran Services also reviews the veteran’s file to ensure that eligibility criteria are met and statutory guidelines and obligations are followed. If a VSO denies chapter 115 benefits, or removes a veteran from the program for failure to comply with job searches or income reporting mandates, the veteran can appeal that decision to the state Department of Veteran’s Services (and to higher administrative courts if necessary).
Throughout the veteran’s participation in the Chapter 115 program the Veteran Service Officer has statutory obligations to help the veteran file any and all VA claims and applications for healthcare and other social safety net benefits and to ensure that veterans that are able to work are actively seeking employment and reporting their income to the VSO. Commonwealth VSOs become, throughout this process, the veteran’s advocate, mentor, and coach. Finally, at the end of the fiscal year, 75% of the Chapter 115 benefits that the city pays out are reimbursed by the state Department of Veteran’s Services.
Are Chapter 115 benefits a perfect solution to all the challenges that commonwealth veterans face? Of course not. No government program, non-profit, charity, or business can address all of the complex issues that American veterans deal with. The challenges in transitioning from service in our all-volunteer military to civilian life are serious, but they are surmountable. Examples like the Hazelwood Act and Chapter 115 benefits are just two examples of how to create a net of support for veterans. Other states should look to Texas and Massachusetts to create similar programs, while continuing to experiment.