The Florida Department of Veterans Affairs briefed lawmakers Tuesday ahead of the 2022 Legislative Session, prompting one lawmaker to lambast the federal VA’s handling and treatment of veterans.
Led by Executive Director James Hartsell, the department links veterans with federal benefits, such as the GI Bill. They also help attract transitioning service members into Florida, among other missions.
The return on investment, Hartsell highlighted, is significant. Florida hosts the third-largest veteran population in the nation and many of those veterans, he said, infuse the state economy with upwards of $18.4 billion.
Speaking to the committee, Hartsell also noted the state agency’s accomplishments amid the pandemic. In FY 2020-21, the agency enrolled Florida veterans in new entitlements totaling $612,132,901. That figure amounts to a $42:$1 return on investment.
“Every federal dollar that FDVA B&A staff garners from advocacy on behalf of Florida’s veterans is a dollar added to Florida’s economy,” the agency noted in a document shared with lawmakers. “Every health care or educational dollar provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs potentially frees a state dollar that can be used to assist other citizens.”
The agency, Hartsell added, also opened two nursing homes within the same time frame: Ardie R. Copas in Port St. Lucie and Lake Baldwin in Orlando.
The agency, however, is facing challenges including staffing and census counts. Within the year, staff vacancies at nursing homes ballooned from 11 to 111.
“I’m trying to hire the same people that everybody else is trying to hire,” Hartsell said.
Though lawmakers applauded the state agency, at least one vocalized frustration with the federal VA. Democratic Sen. Victor Torres tore into the federal agency, lambasting reports of treatment and claims delays.
Torres, a vet himself, said a claim he filed two years ago is still unaddressed.
The Orlando-area lawmaker called COVID-19 delays and other excuses “B.S.”
“We need to straighten this out,” Torres remarked. “We should have the VA here today.”
FDVA is launching several programs to recruit more veterans who fall through the cracks. Among them is a plan to target Vietnam veterans and another to focus on women veterans.
The Vietnam program is coined Operation Roll Call.
“We’re not looking for the Vietnam veterans who go to the VA and get services,” said FDVA Deputy Executive Director Bob Asztalos. “What we’re looking for is the Vietnam veterans who are isolated, who still have bitter feelings about the war, who are now in their homes, aging out, and they need services, but it’s been so long they don’t know how to reach out.”
With the 2022 Legislative Session starting Jan. 11, FDVA highlighted five fiscal year priorities including trust fund recovery and staffing.
“My budget, like any other business in the State of Florida, like any other agency or department, was impacted, obviously, by COVID-19,” Hartsell said. “It hit us hard in our budget and our operations.”
Hartsell explained that FDVA nursing homes generate revenue, and the proceeds go into a trust fund that finances new nursing homes.
The pandemic, however, threw a wrench into the process, prompting the agency to use the money to cover lost funds. FDVA nursing homes dropped from 98% census to 62% census amid the pandemic.
“We were not making money on the income of those residents and the federal dollars that they benefit from,” Harsell said. “Therefore that money had to come out of the bank.”
Hartsell said nursing home occupancy is up to 67% and gradually increasing.