Michigan's first county veteran fund was approved by lawmakers in the state House on Wednesday.
They voted 107-1 to create the County Veteran Service Fund, which would deploy veteran service officers to each county to assist veterans in adjusting to civilian life. Each county's grant consists of a base $25,000 amount and a per-capita total based on the veteran population.
"This bill is the start of how we're going to change the way Michigan delivers benefit services to our veterans and their families," said Rep. Jason Wentworth, the bill sponsor. "County service officers are the front line of veteran service delivery in the state of Michigan."
As an Army veteran himself and member of the House Community, Access, Resources, Education and Safety task force, Wentworth said limited access to veteran services was a recurring barrier, given how confusing it can be to navigate paperwork for federal benefits.
In 2016 Michigan ranked sixth-from-last in per-veteran uptake of federal benefits, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics — despite having the 11th-highest veteran population. Currently 53 of Michigan's 83 counties have at least one state-funded employee available to assist veterans in seeking federal benefits, but some are only afforded a couple hours of work each month. The Michigan Veteran Service Coalition runs the operation, which costs the state about $3.8 million per year.
On the floor Wednesday, Wentworth shared a story of a constituent who struggled to encourage her father, a veteran, to seek help — only to find him waiting for weeks for a county worker to be available.
"This is not the level of service our veterans and their families deserve," said the Republican from Clare. "My hope is we come to agreement on the need and that this is the No. 1 problem facing veterans in our state."
Wednesday's bill, which proposes an additional $5 million appropriation, would provide all counties with an accredited service worker for at least 20 hours a week, mainly to help veterans apply for eligible benefits such as disability and pension. Counties that already operate these services, usually due to outsized veteran populations, would be able to foray into accommodations such as delivery to outpatient programs or navigating contracts for in-home care.
"Really the sky's the limit as long as you're meeting the requirements," said Phil Yeiter, legislative liaison for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. "This is exciting to us as an agency and state; for the first time Michigan is making a big investment for veterans."
The fund would be established within the state Department of Treasury, with the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency operating the program's distribution of grants. The bill is sponsored by the state's Department of Military and Veteran Affairs as well as multiple state- and county-level veteran agencies.
The MVAA also operates call centers for veterans, and more than 85 percent of requests are for emergency assistance, said spokeswoman Suzanne Thelen. A county-level fund would work to safeguard veterans from mental health, unemployment or housing difficulties that escalate into full-blown crises.
"We have veterans struggling with transitioning to civilian life," she said. "As an agency we have an opportunity to help and serve as a central coordinating point to make it as easy as possible for veterans and families in times of crisis."
The bill now heads to the Senate.