Any one of the 385,000 veterans in Massachusetts should be able to walk into their city or town hall and find a veterans' officer whose job it is to help vets get state benefits, but the state says some communities are skimping on this crucial service to save money.
"We are very concerned about that," said Coleman Nee, Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services.
Massachusetts pays its veterans more money per capita than any other state, but Nee is concerned that underperforming veterans services offices are failing to connect vets with benefits.
"We owe it to these people to make sure that we don't just say we're the best in the nation but that we provide access points so that they can access benefits that do make us best in the nation," Nee said.
State law requires every city and town to hire someone to assist veterans and their families, helping them find government benefits available to them ranging from financial assistance to housing to job training. The officer must also be a veteran.
"They have rights. These are not discretionary benefits for a town or city. These are rights that are guaranteed them under Massachusetts state law," Nee said.
The law dates back to 1861. But in 2011, the state Department of Veterans Services gave communities guidelines for establishing veterans' services districts, allowing them to join together to provide services.
That's the case in Melrose, Wakefield and Saugus, where district director Ryan McLane oversees veterans offices for the three communities.
"Veterans face unique challenges. We have very high suicide rates. We have a lot of unemployment in the younger generations. We have health care issues in the older generations," McLane said.
But records FOX Undercover obtained from the Mass. Department of Veterans' Services are raising questions about whether all veterans are getting the services they need.
The records, which compare each communities' veterans; caseloads with communities with similar populations, suggest that some communities are not identifying vets who could need services.
The caseloads in Charlton, Swampscott and Belmont, for example, are well below the state average for their populations. They're not the only communities with below-average numbers and part-time veterans' services officers, even though state law requires those towns to have full-time officers. Representatives from all three towns said their veterans' services officers are providing the services needed.
The towns of Shrewsbury, Grafton and Northboro are under fire for their numbers and for sharing the same part-time veterans' services officer. Based on their population, the state requires each to have a full-time officer.
The records show they provided benefits to 16 people last year. The state average for their total population is 76 cases.
"Do you think there are veterans in those towns that aren't getting the services they need?" FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked.
"I think right now their numbers look exceptionally low compared to where they should be," Nee replied.
But Dick Perron, the 90-year-old veterans' services officer for those communities, says he does "a damn good job."
Perron has a long record of military service, beginning with the Navy during World War II. He says the state doesn't understand the people who actually live in the towns.
"They'll say, ‘We go to New Bedford, we've got 120 people.' Sure, New Bedford is a poverty-ridden area. This isn't. And I think that's the bottom line to it," Perron said.
He's not the only one who thinks the state is missing the mark. State Rep. Matt Beaton of Shrewsbury says it doesn't make sense for the towns to hire three full-time people.
"Not every town has the same number of veterans in there. So to base the number of staff that is required under this new program to be based solely on population doesn't necessarily put our money in the right places," Beaton said.
But the state's veterans' secretary says some communities aren't doing enough.
"Do you think some communities are turning their backs on veterans?" Beaudet asked him.
"I think some communities have a fundamental misunderstanding of this position and have not necessarily prioritized it in a way it should be prioritized," Nee replied.
© 2016 Cox Media Group.
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