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Supervisors add "reinforcements" to County Veterans Services Office

SAN JOSE – After much discussion, veterans and the County Veterans Services Office (VSO) were told that help is on the way.  The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted (3-0-2 Supervisors Simitian, Lee, and Chavez voting “Aye”) to add additional Veteran Service Representatives (VSRs) to the VSO during the Mid-Year 2023-2024 budget process. The VSO is the primary method by which the County serves its resident veterans; connecting them to the services and benefits to which they are entitled. This action, proposed by County Supervisor Joe Simitian and co-authored by County Supervisor Otto Lee, looks to help the over 64,000 veterans living in the county. 

“Serving the County’s veterans is part of the County’s mission,” said Simitian. “I’ve been frustrated that our Country hasn’t had the staffing necessary to fully assist our veterans when they return from duty; this is a logical next step in improving our service to local veterans.”

Each VSR is CalVET/Veterans Administration (VA) certified and helps local veterans apply for all possible benefits for which they qualify. VSRs help fill out and file paperwork, do research of a veteran’s record, and assist with appeals. These services also extend to a veteran’s dependents, such as their spouse or minor children. In addition, the VSRs also refer veterans to eligible County programs and services. Training to become an accredited VSR takes anywhere between 4 to 6 months. “But,” said Simitian, “they’re just aren’t enough folks filling these roles.”

In July 2023, the County held its first Veterans Stand Down. This event was designed to introduce veterans to services and service providers. In addition, veterans could take advantage of dental and medical services, get food, and a haircut. The Stand Down was successful in helping veterans while raising the visibility of the VSO. Visits to the VSO after the event increased by approximately 50%. 

Additionally, VSO’s services experienced an increased demand due to the federal Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins (PACT) Act registration window closing in mid-August 2023. The PACT Act legislation extended health care benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, and a flood of applications was the result. 

Of necessity, the increase in visits has been handled by existing staff. Insufficient staffing has, however, been a persistent issue at the VSO, and the increased caseload has been a significant factor in staff turnover. “The VSO has a turnover rate of 35-40%,” said Supervisor Lee. “This referral will also look to address the reasons for turnover and ways to fix this problem. Help is on the way.” 

“The addition of these positions is just the beginning, and frankly, is insufficient to address the larger issues,” said Simitian. “But if we’re going to help our veterans, we have to address the increased demand for services, the burden on staff, and the resulting turnover.” 

Simitian said, “Adding a handful of staff midyear is a start, but our VSO – and local veterans – need more.” Simitian said he hopes, “a deeper dive when we look at the budget in June will address the larger set of issues. A modest increase in staffing has the potential to generate a dramatic increase in the number of veterans served and the level of benefits for which they can qualify.”