Caleb S. Cage: National VA conference has lessons that will boost Nevada veterans care
February 17, 2013
I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual midwinter conference for the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs in Alexandria, Va. Although most people have never heard of the organization, over the last few years I have found it to be one of the best assets around when it comes to improving our delivery of benefits and services to service members, veterans and their families in Nevada. This year’s conference was no different, providing a great opportunity to meet with my counterparts from around the country as well as national leaders from the VA and from service organizations.
I found this year’s conference to be especially valuable in many ways. First was the fact that we were able to have personal interaction with key leaders at the federal VA. Last year, we were among the first to see the details of the federal VA budget, a budget that has a great impact on our operations in Nevada. We also signed a historic memorandum of understanding with Secretary Eric Shinseki that was intended to ensure that our organizations work together to serve veterans around the country.
This year, we were able to renew our commitment to work together through that memorandum, a commitment that has served us all very well over the last year. Secretary Shinseki addressed our group about the vision and successes within his agency at the federal level, especially as it pertains to his efforts in the areas of outreach, ending homelessness, and ending the claims backlog. Several of his staffers addressed us as well, including key leaders from all three agencies falling under the VA: benefits, health care and memorial affairs.
Because of their presence, we were able to ask direct questions to the representative from the VA’s National Cemetery Administration about the proposed Veterans Burial Ground in Elko. We were able to ask questions about how the VA budget would be impacted, and therefore how our budgets would be impacted, by the proposed sequestration process in the federal budget. We also were allowed to ask questions regarding the federal law that will impact our ability to serve Nevada’s veterans and their family members through our nursing home.
These are complicated and difficult issues, ones that have not had clear answers in the past, but we were able to walk out with a better understanding after this great opportunity to interact with key federal decision makers.
Beyond our meetings with federal representatives, we also heard from various private, government, and non-profit leaders outside of the VA, learning a great deal from each. We had exchanges with representatives from the relatively new National Association of State Women Veteran Coordinators, as well as many of the other veteran service organizations. We had detailed briefings on successful veterans court programs around the country, health care, benefits, and other programs as well. We were able to discuss the Department of Defense’s national effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War around the country during the next decade, the enormous successes of the VA’s homelessness program, as well as the efforts to protect military members and veterans through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
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One of the best parts of these meetings, though, is the opportunity to share information on best practices between state directors around the country. Some of these directors have been serving veterans and their families in their respective states for decades and have incredible insight on how best to reach and serve their populations. Their presentations this year dealt with effective outreach, especially as it pertains to providing services to veterans in the areas of higher education, employment, and wellness. As many know, these are the focus areas of the Green Zone Initiative, which I was honored to discuss with the group as well.
These meetings are remarkable in that they allow interaction between state agencies as well as with the highest level of leaders with respect to veterans issues. They allow for further development of important relationships around these issues as well. I am eager to use both to find ways to improve our services to Nevada’s veterans.
• Caleb S. Cage is the executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services, appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval. You can read his blog at http://veterans.nv.gov/blog.