CLEARWATER — Waiting lists and delays to get treatment have plagued the Veterans Health Administration, according to recent audits. But even before they get into the Veterans Affairs system, vets in Pinellas County have struggled to get help registering and claiming other benefits at offices run by the county’s understaffed veterans services department.
More than a year after veterans complained in person to county commissioners about long wait times and telephone calls not being returned, they say the service barely has improved.
Veterans wait up to 48 hours to get calls returned and at least a week for an initial appointment, veterans said Tuesday.
Complaints centered on the county’s lack of qualified veterans services officers, whose role is to provide free advice and counseling so veterans and their families can get help making claims and finding other assistance.
Pinellas has only three full- and one part-time staff members serving almost 100,000 veterans. Neighboring Hillsborough County has nine officers serving roughly the same size veteran population.
“Within our county, people don’t even get into the system because the allocation doesn’t allow this veterans office to fulfill its mandate,” said Bob Swick, a former Marine Corps captain. “It’s unconscionable.”
The level of service is improved from what commissioners called a crisis point last year, when some veterans waited up to eight weeks to get help and calls to offices were not returned.
The county faced such a backlog that it sought help from Hillsborough County and the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs
That issue was one cited by commissioners when they decided to fire Bob LaSala from his post as county administrator. The veterans services offices fall under the county’s Health and Human Services department, whose previous executive director, Gwen Warren, retired early and was reassigned to work the remainder of her time with the county at St. Petersburg College.
Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard said the county is taking steps to address the issues, including the hiring of a new director for the department and a new veterans services officer, and more administrative resources.
There also are plans to reorganize the reporting structure so the new director reports directly to the county’s Health and Human Services executive director. The department will get an extra $150,000 in funding in the next fiscal year, boosting its annual funding to $663,000. That will enable the department to employ five veterans services officers and two administrators, the same staffing level it had before the recession.
“As speakers today have pointed out, I don’t think we have well served our veterans over the course of the last 18, 24 months,” Woodard said.
Commissioners wanted to know why it was taking so long to fill the department’s vacancies and how long it would take new staff to be trained.
Bruce Moeller, interim chief of staff, said the county’s human resources department is working to fill the posts and former staff with experience assisting veterans may be considered.