Speaker:  On 15 June, Paul Hoffecker, founder and CEO of Renovating Hope (www.renovatinghope.org), spoke to the Council on the topic of “Renovating Hope … Finding a Better Way” and of his organization’s ambitions.

About three years ago he was asked to help a veteran in fixing his home. Shortly afterwards, ten more requests followed.  From this experience Renovating Hope, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization was born.

Renovating Hope is not an “Extreme Makeover” giveaway program [editor’s comment].  Instead it provides basic housing rehabilitation services (roofing repairs, plumbing, electrical and HVAC/ appliance purchases and installations, and the like) to those who are or have given military service and are in immediate need and in financial difficulty (and the widows of KIA). Those to receive the offer of help must first demonstrate they have been unsuccessful, after sincere effort, in securing sufficient funds to hire help and/or to effect the repairs to their homes themselves.

Renovating Hope is also about community working together to solve problems. It is an alliance between contractors (typically members of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry) and suppliers and those being helped under the thoughtful guidance and negotiating power of Renovating Hope.

After a plan is developed for a chosen project, professional contractors and installers are used to accomplish the needed repairs.  Funding for the payment of contractors, supplies and equipment, and project management – at cost (without unnecessary overhead, without net profit) – is secured through grants and through personal and corporate donations. In-kind donations are also accepted. The “profit” lies in their recognition for generosity to and caring for those who while in military service risk themselves for others.  The program has the additional advantage of putting contractors back to work in a meaningful and useful way in hard economic times.  Average cost has worked out to about $7500 per home.

Mr. Hoffecker had recognized that one of the common aspirations of most veterans, like for most other Americans, is a secure, safe home. As he encountered more and more veterans (there are over 1100 on a waiting list contingent to funding), he was astounded by the number in need of a job and their potential as tradesmen, if recruited and trained.  This is leading onto other alliances and perhaps the dream of a trade school for them.  Additionally shocked to see first-hand that more than a few veterans are resistant to using VA services or have had bad experiences when seeking their help. While he harbors no preconceived notions or resentments towards to the VA and acknowledges that he is new to the veterans scene, his healthcare background tells him more needs to be done to assist veterans in their transition back into the civilian life by government also.

Currently he is touring the country to expand nationwide a program that began in southeastern Pennsylvania.  One key need – as word of the Renovating Hope has spread – is a larger funding stream. The other need is to develop a network for “good” referrals.  Already there is a letter of understanding with the PA National Guard, alliances with local NARI associations, and companies such as Pella Windows, Home Depot, etc.  As he puts it, “We all know someone in small business or at corporate level that can help and know of someone who can be helped.”  Then he concluded with an earnest plea to help him help others by finding sponsors and clients.  “Remember,” he said (paraphrased), “this is not about a hand out but looking out for each other as a society when most in honest need of help … and who better to help than those injured or in financial distress, due to no real fault of their own, who once looked out for us by dint of military service.”

Programs for Next Year:  The Veterans Affairs Committee is starting its discussions on what it will plan and budget for next year to get us back on cycle. Due to the economic recession, the funding situation last year put us off cycle (2009), but gradually we are regaining our footing and we need to start programming earlier.  If a member organization or individual has an idea he or she would wish to put forward and help along,  initially contact Rich Hudzinski, the Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee at rhudzinski@lvmac.org .

Seeking Interested Motor Cycle Clubs: The Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee asked the membership to provide contacts to motor cycle clubs who might be interested in supporting various LVMAC endeavors..

Vet Suicides are an epidemicLast month we reported on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finding of VA incompetence in the area area of mental health.  Now, according to the Iraq Afghantistan Veterans of America (IAVA), veterans suicides are an “epidemic.”  With veterans now accounting for one of every five suicides in the nation, the Department of Veterans Affairs is under pressure from the courts and Congress to fix its mental health services in an attempt to curb the death toll. “The suicide rate is out of control. It’s epidemic proportions right now,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.  “There are very few programs that are effective, and there’s a serious lack of national awareness.” While the government keeps no official tally of veteran suicides, the VA said last year that veterans account for roughly 20% of the estimated 30,000 suicides annually in the United States.

There are things that can be done locally, nevertheless.  There are mental health resources within our community in addition to those of the VA clinic in Allentown which has upgunned its social and behavioral services and though we would suggest its use first if at all possible – and despite the trial it is sometimes to get service, perceived or real. First, don’t forget the little things and the role you might play. You are part of this organization and must have concern for this issue.  For example, just your listening might help start the individual on the road back, especially if one is aware of the resources out there available to help.  It is one reason we must complete our PTSD Booklet.

And don’t forget other of our efforts.  Even our Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing can be put to good use to get a hurting veteran to associate with others.  Even more specifically, Veterans Sanctuary, which we have supported since it was but an idea in the head of Robert Csandl, will be officially operational on 11 July.  While it is first oriented on those with PTSD and chronic alcohol and drug addiction, may prove an itself asset for more than its accepted clientele but also for others just wandering and needing a steer in the right direction to services.

And there is that Scranton VA Vet Center “outstation” presence in the valley in Narazreth (although their presence has fallen far short of what we expected of them).  Finally, 1-877-273-8255, the suicide hotline from SAMHSA works. It has proven itself here. If the VA option is used, the VA will ensure after talking  that the local VA actively reaches out to help.  Remember they  they will talk to a veteran, a family member, or a concerned friend about someone in a depressed state even if not threatening suicide at the moment.  This is a number for all of us to memorize or keep on a scrap of paper in our wallet or purse.

Scholarship Program:  We’re working on final decisions so we can award about $5,000.  Applicants have increased and some veterans have applied this year, reflecting the change to the program.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing:  From 24-26 June, 5 veterans with 4 instructors from our member organization Trout Unlimited – Hokendauqua will be put up – all expenses paid – by Fred Peifer at his Featherbed Bed and Breakfast in Jamison City/Benton, PA area for fishing at Fishing Creek.  The local sportsmen club is doing a trout stocking, supplying expert guides and an afternoon picnic for this event.  After a couple of years of hard work this program is finally blossoming.

Homelessness: We will be attending the CECH steering committee meeting on 16 June.  Completing grant actions in the vicinity of $11,000 total in addition to what has been distributed previously.  Paul Casner has been replaced by Stephen Costa as the VA Clinic’s Outreach Coordinator.

It should be noted the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs, not Veterans Administration, an outdated and inaccurate term] is creating housing opportunities for homeless and at-risk Veterans by adding 34 VA locations across the country.  This strategy will increase the Department’s available beds by over 5,000.  VA currently has 15,000 transitional beds available to homeless Veterans.   None of this is occurring in Pennsylvania and one must ask why.  However, there is no state agency to really to which to ask the question of why we were overlooked … if we have.

Its Building Utilization Review and Repurposing (BURR) initiative, identified unused and underused buildings at existing VA property with the potential to develop new housing opportunities for homeless or at-risk Veterans and their families through public-private partnerships and VA’s enhanced-use lease (EUL) program. Under the EUL program, VA retains ownership of the land and can determine and control its reuse.

Additional opportunities identified through BURR will include housing for returning Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans and their families, assisted living for elderly Veterans and continuum of living residential communities.

Sounds great … for major urban areas with VA Medical Centers within its boundaries, but what of elsewhere?   Or is HUD-VASH vouchers the magic bullet for areas such as ours in the Lehigh Valley?  .

Veterans Sanctuary:  Will be able to take clients on 11 July.  That is, they will be operational.  We are also completing a grant award to encourage a family educational program in the vicinity of $8,000.

Military Support:  Dick Moore is looking at a Military Family Picnic as a follow-on to the BounceU event that occurred in late April. We’re well behind but about to wrap up the final draft of the PTSD Resource Booklet for education families. We will inquire of Red Cross about what funding they are receiving in funding for military family support as we  have noted an insurance company has gotten involved in supporting VFW efforts.

HOCVA (Healthcare in Our Community with the VA):  Trying to arrange for CEO or a primary subordinate from LVHN to speak at the council meeting to update us on their efforts to partnership with the local VA.  There have been some apparently fruitful discussions going on but it is too soon to report on the results.

VA Vet Center:  Scranton continues to plod along on the fringes of our  geographic area of concern, despite our expressed desire for the Readjustment and Counseling Service to push itself further south to where our veterans populations are more dense.

Local Fundraising:  Ashly Moyer 5K Race for Freedom is scheduled for 3 September.  The website is up and flyers are beginning to be distributed (www.5kraceforfreedom.org).

Veterans Diversion Courts:  [Adding it to our list of projects]  As you know, we have suggested to the Governor’s Office that Veterans Diversion Courts should be a statewide effort and not an accident of fate in where one lives.  Now we are looking to when to start a local effort. After some lengthy discussions, it was decided in Lehigh County serious effort should begin after the elections in November.  We will likewise try to get something going in Northampton County.

Meanwhile, Chuck Jackson, Bill Harris (one of our founders), and I will be attending a meeting  in Philadelphia with Judge Anthony on 30 June to hear and learn from  a special presentation by Judge Robert Russell, of Buffalo NY, creator of the first Veterans Court and his Mentor Coordinator, Jack O’Connor. They will be talking on the history and importance of Veterans Court, the mentor program, and the obstacles of the program.  Our intention is to become wise to what is really needed to have an effective program that serves a purpose and operates in a way we pragmatic Americans can appreciate.

Governmental Affairs:  We submitted a new draft bill for a State Department of Veterans Affairs (SDVA) – together with a bill analysis – to Sen. Browne on 26 May.  His office is in the process of having it reviewed and the Senator has agreed to to talk to Rep. Barrar about a prime sponsor on the House side for the companion bill.  Meanwhile they have forwarded a copy to the Governor’s office.

The Act 66 (VSO) grant money should be awarded about now. It has been claimed that about 22,000 veterans have been helped by this act so far this fiscal year and about $265 million recouped.  There have been questions about the reporting and outreach and about improving it from veterans organizations, the Office of Veterans Affairs, and the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Commisttee. If we understood correctly, Penn State has been contracted to conduct some form of review involving it and its effectiveness in helping veterans obtain healthcare in the northern tier of Pennsylvania. This same study, for unknown reasons, seems to have delayed action on county directors of veterans affairs legislation originally sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association of County Directors of Veterans Affairs to improve their training and define their duties. More later.

The Small Games of Chance bill that is important to many veterans organizations to sustain themselves and their good works seems stymied for the present.  The question of compromise might need to raise its head.

The Pennsylvania War Veterans Council is contemplating whether or not to add SDVA back to its list of legislative priorities.  It was a longstanding position of this organization unknown to most veterans but affecting them prior to the deal made with Governor Rendell over Act 66, which blurred the issue of  what is needed to have an effective state veterans affairs program that has meaning to more veterans.

There is mounting concern from county directors and veterans organizations, as evidenced at the last State Veterans commission about financial management firms charging or providing bad advice about aid and attendance benefits from the VA to elderly veterans – something that can be freely obtained. Additionally, the VA has no look back period like Medicare when it comes to financial planning and instances of paying back the VA after review have occurred after bad advice given.

On 16 June, the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Erie celebrates its 125th anniversary.

VA News: VISN-4 (VHA) claims it is doing C&P exams with 99.5% accuracy within 25 days of notification.  Big Deal? Is this another example of looking at the part for the whole?   The balance of the time – sometimes years – lies with the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Regional (VBA) offices. Until they revamp the compensation and pension system, consolidate regional operations like they have with Educational and Pension programs, and require “Ready to Rate” claims from claims officers, the 125-135 goal will never be achieved and the 800,000 to 1 million case backlog will remain a permanent fixture in the opinion of this writer.  Here is some of the latest:

VA Claims Error Rate remains high.  In a recent audit of the VA Disability Compensation System at 16 Regional Offices, the VA Office of the Inspector General estimates that the rating staff incorrectly processed 23% of the 45,000 claims inspected.

The IG investigated offices throughout the US and focused mainly on the handling of the following five types of claims: extra-schedular 100 percent disability evaluations (TDIU); PTSD; TBI; Herbicide Exposure; and 5 Haas (Haas v Nicholson “blue water” claims from Vietnam Agent Orange exposure). [Source: Military Advantage Blog Ben Krause article 21 May 2011 ++]

The lesson?  Don’t accept any VA compensation decision in particular the first time around?  Maybe.  Contact your veterans service officer (the acredited service officer who helped you file your claim) and seek his advice and appeal the decision if the right thing to do.  Be calm. You are not alone.

Home-based care in the later life is getting greater emphasis. We figure it will ultimately reflect itself in  changing how we care for aging veterans.  That is,  a movement towards “aging in place” as long as possible and less emphasis on the construction of more state veterans homes.  Economics will prove the driver in this issue no doubt, but there are also advantages to the average veteran who wishes to remain in his/her community to the end of his days … and his family.

VISN-4 seems to heavily emphasize its construction program, but we have noted that dollar per veteran spent in health services has gone down in comparison with other surrounding states. Efficiency?

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ mail-order pharmacy program has been recognized as a J.D. Power 2011 Customer Service Champion – one of only 40 entities in the United States to earn the distinction this year.

VA will offer debit cards for those drawing benefits but without a bank account.  This all part of the federal movement to cease mailing checks.  The Department of Veterans Affairs (through the Treasury Department) will offer beneficiaries without bank accounts the option to enroll in the Direct Express debit card program with Comerica Bank. Direct Express payments will be directly deposited into that account and made accessible through a debit card. Personal funds cannot be transferred into this account as it can only be used to receive Federal benefits. Direct Express cardholders have 24/7 access to their money at automated teller machines and are able to make purchases at any retailer that accepts MasterCard. [Source: Mil.com | Benefits 16 MAY 2011 ++]


 15 June 2011